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COVID-19 and the Knowledge Resource We’re Not Getting

In a crisis, it’s not enough to disseminate accurate information about what is already known and should be universally understood. (Example: during the COVID-19 epidemic, wash your hands.)

It’s also crucial to disseminate the best evidence-based knowledge about what might come next, along with the level of uncertainty about that knowledge.

Anxiety and panic are about both the present and the future. Information that only informs action in the present but leaves the future a mystery might actually make things worse.

I think this is our situation today regarding COVID-19.

What would be the ideal, research- and expertise-based information resource on COVID-19? One that would arm us in the present and at least comfort us that we know everything that is known about the future? What would that resource look like?

It wouldn’t just provide the latest infection maps and best available advice on what you should do to keep yourself and your family healthy now. It would also give you a snapshot of the evidence and range of expert opinion on best- and worst-case scenarios, which policy and medical intervention steps have been most effective in stemming spread, and where systemic vulnerabilities might lie in each country to execute those steps.

It would express certainty levels for all its recommendations and projections. It would also express all important knowledge gaps.

Currently, there is no such resource available. And so we have misinformation, half-truth and hoarding.

The WHO and CDC resource hubs are barely adequate. The New York Times and the Washington Post have created their own hubs, but the bias again is toward what’s new, not what’s next.

Journalism offers us more stories and more debate, which is not the same thing as knowledge, especially for those not fanatically attentive to particular media platforms.

A crucial question, for instance, about the future of the pandemic is: can it be contained? There is tremendous uncertainty about that question.

I’ve just read a compelling Vox interview with a WHO assistant director general who led a mission to China to see what it did right in containing the virus and who says its lessons can be applied wherever resources are adequate.

But I’ve also read other articles in STAT and the Atlantic quoting numerous experts who predict that COVID-19 cannot be contained and will become a new seasonal disease worldwide.

The question isn’t so much: who’s right? The question is much more: why do we have to read multiple sources in elite and sometimes paywalled media outlets to get at this essential information?

Brand journalism is competitive, and that competitiveness works against synthesis.

Research doesn’t know how to create such resources.

That’s why we are seeing authorities who have no domain expertise in health or science create their own information resources for their followers about the pandemic.

For example: the marketer Seth Godin has published a guide to how to respond to COVID-19 based on his experience observing “viruses” in marketing and ideas.

Scott Alexander, the California psychiatrist and famous rationalist blogger at Slate Star Codex, has done the same (although, to his credit, he rates its “epistemic status” up front as “very weak”).

The tech entrepreneur Elad Gil has published and is updating a COVID-19 PSA for startups.

Even Ben Thompson, the tech/business strategy blogger at Stratechery, is speculating this morning about what six deaths in Washington State from COVID-19 mean for the overall infection and death rate we will see from the virus.

(It’s weird that men seem to be the ones who feel compelled to assemble these resources, not women. I don’t know what that means.)

None of these assemblages are objective, of course; throughout all of them, you can hear axes distant and proximate being ground. But it’s hard to blame the assemblers. Non-experts compiling their own information resources is a symptom of the problem. It’s what happens when pertinent experts don’t know how or don’t have the networks and/or the infrastructure to publish their own resource content. It’s the result of decades of researchers relying on journals and/or journalists to carry their communication water for them.

We are left with competing perspectives rather than synthesis, news rather than knowledge. Some degree of uncertainty is inevitable, given the complexity and large unknowns of this crisis. But this pandemic demonstrates that the way we communicate research-based knowledge broadly is, to understate wildly, less than satisfying, and perhaps deadly.