How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Crappy Science & COVID Risk Perception

Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash

I caught up with a friend the other day — let’s call them The Old Scientist — who thinks many people are behaving too fearfully about the risks of COVID-19.

The Old Scientist doesn’t advocate not taking precautions — they wear a mask in public, and insist others near them do the same — but they also do things that a lot of people who also pay attention to science headlines wouldn’t dream of doing, such as flying frequently and dining out at indoor restaurants.

In my limited experience, this viewpoint is —surprisingly — not uncommon among scientists.

The tight consensus on relative risk you might see in your Twitter stream or on CNN or in The New York Times doesn’t reflect the perhaps unsettling range of opinions in the scientific expert population on the relative risk of various activities. It also doesn’t reflect their range of responses on the larger question of how to live one’s life in the face of various risks.

I shared with The Old Scientist last week’s CDC study that found you have a much higher risk of catching the virus if you dine out, either seated indoors or out, as compared with many other activities we’ve heard are risky (such as gatherings with ≤10 persons in a home; going to an office setting; going to a salon; going to a gym; using public transportation; going to a bar/coffee shop; or attending church/religious gathering).

The Old Scientist looked at the study and found its methodology wanting, to be charitable. A better headline from the study, they said, would have been that it found 42 percent of COVID-19 cases reported they had had close contact with a known COVID-19 case, versus 14 percent of COVID-19 negative people. Close contact, The Old Scientist argued, was the decisive variable.

That was not the headline. And headlines still matter, because they are how most of us consume science. Which is why the current science communications climate is a dangerously polluted one for COVID-19 science.

If there is, as The Old Scientist suggests, a more accurate continuum for various activities and COVID-risk that people aren’t following — is that attributable to people’s timidity? Or is it at least in part in their rational reaction to a series of alarming and indelible headlines from studies that are later walked back quietly, if at all?

The Old Scientist took the time to deconstruct the CDC’s flawed design. The science-media industrial complex hasn’t yet done this, even on Twitter.

I just saw a warning from my favorite local bookstore: We won’t let you in with just a neck gaiter over your face; you need a real mask. That “study” will never die, no matter how many follow up articles have tried to walk it back.

We’ve had numerous headlines about studies indicating that COVID is causing myocarditis in athletes who contract it. If athletes’ hearts are being damaged, why would I take a chance?

Except that the studies are terrible.

Again: There’s a scientist taking apart one of these headline studies and saying — this adds very little to the literature. That kind of analysis is painstaking but essential to public understanding of the best available evidence. But who sees this analysis, tucked away on a corner of Twitter? It needs to happen with a bigger platform. This is why I advocate for independent red team reviews for forthcoming studies.

When the science-media industrial complex dumps crappy science into an extremely polarized environment — one in which anything negative about COVID-19 is automatically weaponized in the election — the headlines generated are guaranteed to produce ever more extreme reactions.

I remain cautious. About too much interaction with a less than vigilant world. And about science in the headlines.