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COVID-19: What role for scientists in a nation full of armchair epidemiologists?

By Fiona Fox

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

 

Two weeks ago, I was invited to be on a panel on communication around COVID at a seminar called Known Unknowns, organised by Prof George Davey Smith at Bristol and hosted by Fiona Godlee and the BMJ. There were many excellent talks at the seminar that can be heard here.

Here was my talk.

This cartoon gives me the opportunity to make two main points:

  • Number one – that much of the media reporting on COVID has been very good, and that’s because we still have specialist science journalists in the UK.
  • And number two – that the same joke could have been made about some scientists, who stray too far outside of their lane, sound convinced they know everything before that’s possible, and have become ’know-it-alls’ on the whole pandemic, rather than experts who know a lot about a small aspect of this virus.

 

On journalists, the truth is that a lot of the science journalists do have a huge amount of specialist knowledge. Unlike me and my team, who get the luxury of passing modelling questions to the modellers, immunology ones to the immunologists and so on, these journalists are expected to fully grasp and cover every aspect of this fast-moving and bewilderingly complex pandemic, often writing four or five science stories a day or filing for several news bulletins.

We really need to pause to celebrate this. If we don’t celebrate the good, we lose credibility when we highlight the bad.

 

Before the pandemic started, I was writing a book about science and the media. The chapters so far are on GM, MMR, statins, climate change and animal research. They are not happy chapters. They show how bad science reporting can impact public understanding, attitudes and behaviour.

Obviously, a lot could yet go wrong with COVID reporting, but so far it’s looking like my chapter on COVID in the media will be more upbeat. This is not an MMR or a climate change, where the media gave undue weight to minority views and mavericks with disastrous consequences. It’s not a GM, where inaccurate information prevailed. It’s a complicated science story that has been reported well for 10 months by journalists who have taken great care to get it right.

For me, the problematic media reporting has come when complex science has been covered by political or general reporters. Some aspects of political reporting have been shown to not be fit for purpose on COVID. The ’gotcha’ journalism, the obsession with U-turns, the love of the ’row’ – these have often dominated at times when we badly need our politicians to admit getting things wrong and be prepared to change their minds.

 

So yes, the cartoon is funny, and yes, journalists may sound like they ’know it all’. But luckily for us, the UK’s science and health journalists do know a heck of a lot, and have become trusted sources for the public.

 

Onto scientists.

 

I am just as complimentary about scientists in this pandemic as I am about journalists, and think we have seen them at their best. I was dismayed recently to see our Science Minister talk about scientists as poor communicators and remote figures. I mean seriously?! After 10 months of watching researchers dominating our airways and demonstrating that they are every bit as good at communicating as politicians, if not a lot better.

But, I also want to raise a few challenges.

The cartoon’s message that journalists have all the answers can also be applied to some scientists. I have had to write to our list of COVID scientists on several occasions asking experts to stick to answering questions that fall in their area, and urging them to highlight uncertainty and unknowns. Behavioural scientists shouldn’t be answering virology questions on airborne transmission, modellers shouldn’t be answering questions on immunology. Scientists shouldn’t be ’know-it-alls’.

 

In the past three years, science has often been crowded out of a busy news agenda by political stories – Brexit, general elections, etc. This year is different. There is only one story in the news and everyone, every politician, columnist, leader writer, is communicating on COVID. This begs the question – what role for scientists when everyone is an armchair expert?

My answer is to stick to doing the science and leave the ’messaging’ to others.

I think we need scientists to take us, bit by bit, study by study, from the unknowns to the knowns and then explain to journalists why, how and what they did to get there. In short, I think we need our scientists to be ’science-y’ – to look and sound different to the other pundits.

We know public trust in scientists remains very high. We don’t know the exact reasons, but my guess is that it’s to do with scientists being science-y – sticking to the evidence, talking about data, changing their minds when the evidence changes, and being open about uncertainty and honest about what we don’t know.

 

Vaccines are a topical example. As we speak, government communications experts are running around trying to make sure we get the ’messaging’ right, such that people will take up the vaccine when it arrives. That’s fine. It’s what they should be doing. But scientists are not government and should resist being part of ’messaging’ campaigns that blur out the risks and uncertainties.

What if one of the vaccines isn’t safe?

What if a great RCT comes along that shows that facemasks don’t work?

What if we never get anywhere remotely near 4000 deaths a day?

Data are data are data – whether it’s convenient or inconvenient for government messaging, whether it serves or ill serves the greater good.

 

So when everyone in the country is an armchair epidemiologist, my plea to scientists is to not join them on the couch.

Don’t be the ’know-it-all’ who can tell us exactly what went wrong and how to fix it. Be the best scientist you can be, in the lab, on the ward and in the media. That’s how I will remember scientists during COVID-19 and that’s also the key to continued good quality media coverage.

 

Back to the cartoon. This is exactly the right way round – when asked when this will all be over, the medic in the white coat says, ”I don’t know”.

Perfect.

2 Responses to COVID-19: What role for scientists in a nation full of armchair epidemiologists?

  1. Michael Morgan says:
    Unfortunately this will probably fall on the deaf ears of those scientists with big egos who crave publicity.

    Unfortunately this will probably fall on the deaf ears of those scientists with big egos who crave publicity.

  2. Ash Ranpura says:
    When a trusted medical doctor says "I don't know" to a patient who is looking for reassurance and guidance, where else is that patient supposed to go? Unlike scientists, doctors have to make educated guesses all the time. I guarantee that doctors all around the world are being asked whether children …

    When a trusted medical doctor says “I don’t know” to a patient who is looking for reassurance and guidance, where else is that patient supposed to go?

    Unlike scientists, doctors have to make educated guesses all the time. I guarantee that doctors all around the world are being asked whether children can safely return to school, whether elderly people can receive visitors, whether it is ok to get on a commuter train if you have asthma and take an antidepressant and often get seasonal colds.

    Should doctors always say “I don’t know” if there is no empirical research on the patient’s exact question? Or is the patient asking for the expert to make an educated and informed guess?

    read more

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