How researchers get heard


Humanity is conducting some gigantic experiments right now — and the biggest might be in how we’re communicating the science of this virus and how to stop it. #Flattenthecurve is the meme, the brand, the call-to-action rolled into one. The universal visual (CDC version, as published in WIRED):

The meme seems to be working, for a lot of people and leaders; we can’t really measure its effectiveness.

It also seems to be not working for perhaps even more, at least not as a motivator of perfectly consistent behavior.

For the moment, just consider this graphic as an alternative or complement to the one above — I’ll come back to it later:

Rolling playdates are being held outside my home office window, parents and their suddenly school-less kids congregating, chatting up close, touching (?!).

I don’t want them off my lawn. But I do want to go outside and yell: don’t you understand you’re killing people?

Well, no. Obviously they don’t. And we can’t blame it all on Fox News, a lack of scientific literacy, or politicians failing to order us about. I live in one of the wealthiest, most liberal counties in the United States. My people take every precaution; even the child car seats here are armored. Something else is going on. What is it?

The Atlantic writer Yascha Mounk blames #spreaders moral deficiency as well as the specific deficiencies of our general moral sense. His new piece offers “Four Theories for Why People are Still Out Partying” instead of socially distancing — the first ignorance, the other three various failures of what we might call “moral lensing” or “moral vision.” The most forgivable of these — our inability to reframe ordinary acts, like meeting friends for chats, as now interactions that also have the potential to precipitate manslaughter — Mounk still finds unforgivable. “An explanation is not an excuse,” he sniffs. “And right now, seemingly innocuous activities are the equivalent of raising a revolver — and then pulling the trigger.”

I find Mounk’s argument both self-serving and unsatisfying; complex when something simpler might do.

What if, instead, we’re looking at a science communication failure? Is it possible that science hasn’t quite made the case that individual action is critical in mitigating/suppressing the virus?

(I know: a science communication failure. What a shock.)

This is not research, but I’ve had a couple of conversations with family members and friends who are socially distancing that revealed even they don’t quite understand why we’re doing it. One of them asked me: “Why are you upset about those kids outside your house? You’re self-isolating; they won’t infect you.”

They thought social distancing was about protecting yourself from an immediate infection. It took several tries for me to explain to them that, even if I was isolated from them, the fact that they were still potentially infecting each other might come back later to harm me and many other people down the road through a different infection pathway.

What finally got through to this person: when I said, “We’re trying to kill the virus before it grows into a monster, and the only way to do that is for each of us to take away all its possible hosts. Your isolation — and theirs — kills the monster.”

It’s a science fiction metaphor. But even better: it’s a metaphor that makes your personal social responsibility more visible.

Remember, #flattenthecurve started as a Twitter hashtag. People who stare at Twitter all day and have time to read long threads explaining unchecked exponential viral growth and its catastrophic intersection with our national threadbare health care capacities got it, and promoted it to the media, where it also became a thing. Nobody ever tested its effectiveness at large. And — to paraphrase Mounk — relatively few people see themselves as a vector for a disease.

It’s also a collective graphic, not instantly relatable to the individual. It doesn’t show how an individual’s actions matter except as part of a collective.

This pair of tree graphics says far better what I was trying to tell my friend. Accompanying a New York Times piece by Siobhan Roberts called “You Can Help Break the Chain of Transmission,” they simply and vividly demonstrates how breaking contact with one person for the duration of the suppression period can avoid transmitting the virus to potentially dozens or more.

Wharton’s Reb Rebele and Adam Grant wrote earlier this week in The Atlantic that written warnings to health-care workers above sinks that said “Hand hygiene prevents you from getting diseases” weren’t nearly as effective at promoting hand washing and soap use as ones that said “Hand hygiene prevents patients from getting disease.”

“When we consider our own susceptibility, we fall victim to the illusion of invulnerability,” write Rebele and Grant. “But when we think about others, we’re more realistic about the risks.”

We just need help to think about “others” as real people, as well as an amorphous collective curve.

So, yes, #flattenthecurve. But also: #breakthechain — to kill the monster.