How researchers get heard

Good Enough Science Communications

In a pandemic, is inaccurate science communications that motivates beneficial action or behavior change now good enough?

ICYMI: Science+Story The Podcast has launched. Catch up on all three episodes here and let me know what you think.

By “good enough” science communications, I could mean two things:

  1. “Good enough” to communicate the science — adequate as science communications;
  2. Communications that adequately represent the science — but not with slavish accuracy — in order to motivate a beneficial behavior change or policy decision.

Normally, we (lovers of science as well as science and research professionals) would welcome #1 and flee #2 — which would be seen as a betrayal of the science as unwelcome as p-hacking.

But these aren’t normal times. They might be times when #2 = #1.

Look at this El Pais visualization of “what the science says” about aerosol transmission of SARS-COV-2 indoors — in a living room, a bar or restaurant and a school classroom — under various scenarios of mask wearing, room ventilation, number of people present and how long those people are present.

The messages:

  1. If there is an infected person in the room, there will be a superspreader event — nearly everyone in the room will become infected if a) the room isn’t ventilating, b) no one wears a mask and c) everyone stays in the room for hours;
  2. It’s difficult but not impossible to curtail everyone’s risk of infection indoors in these scenarios if they limit their time in the room, wear masks and the room is well-ventilated; and
  3. It’s impossible to eliminate your risk of infection indoors if an infected person is also present, even if you are masked, the room is ventilated, and you limit your time in the room.

The El Pais visualization has made the rounds on social. It’s made quite an impression. It’s certainly “good enough” science communication in the sense of “good enough” #1. But is it scientific?

The evolutionary biologist Carl T. Bergstrom casts some doubt in this thread. He argues that the El Pais scenarios “seem to be conditioned on patient zero being highly infectious” — i.e., a superspreader. “They illustrate what can happen in a bad situation,” he tweets, “not what does happen every time an infected person comes into a room.”

In other words, very few infectious people are superspreaders. So, as Bergstrom says: “It is very hard to reconcile the diagram with five out of six people getting infected in four hours with household secondary attack rates that tend to be 30% or far lower.”

Bergstrom concludes:

The consulting scientist for the article, Jose-Luis Jimenez, also threaded about the scientific assumptions behind the article and his level of involvement with what it shows, ending on these notes:

The science communicator in me thinks that Jimenez’s explanations above are naive. The level of attention one expects an article in the media to get should have no bearing on whether you sanction its presenting an extreme event as a business-as-usual one. Bergstrom is right: Sending the wrong message for the right reasons is a mistake.

But isn’t Bergstrom also right when he says “I am not disagreeing with the prescriptions in this article” — i.e., wear a mask, ventilate and don’t spend too much time in any given indoor space?

A list member who called my attention to the El Pais article writes:

I think the article is on-target and effective as a persuasive piece for the El Pais audience. I’d be on board with a little strengthening of the scenarios with, “patient 0 is highly infectious as may occur during days 2-3.”

Here’s what my Mom (non-scientist) said:

“Yes interesting and informative. My brain began to be fried by the time I got to the end. Wear masks. Stay home. No church and no restaurants. Keep distance shopping. I need to speed up the time I spend in stores.”

And that’s honestly the best thing I’ve heard out of my Mom on COVID in a very long time. She very much believes in the real effects of COVID, but she isn’t comfortable online and so is out and about a lot.

Given the transmission rates in Europe and US, I think it’s time to (intentionally) err on the side of public safety.

As an honest perfectionist, I fully understand the desire to characterize things ”correctly.”’

On the other hand, the information ecosystem includes bad actors like the White House science office, which says Trump ended the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bad actors employ propaganda and disinformation because it works. I think it’s reasonable and necessary for honest scientists to bound the accuracy of their argument and get to the important points quickly when communicating with the general public.

Are the risks of “good enough” science communications now outweighed by getting to the important points quickly — which might still be vanishingly close to advocacy? And who decides?