How researchers get heard

Is Your Normal Everyone’s Normal?

The data scientist Youyang Gu (who runs the site now projects that, given an unproblematic vaccine rollout as well as uptake by a majority of Americans, the US will achieve herd immunity (which he defines as 60% of the population) and a “return to normal” by early to mid-summer 2021.

Until then, we’ll experience about 40 million additional infections and about 200,000 additional reported deaths, estimates Youyang. But hey.

Youyang bases his projection — like all projections — on a ton of assumptions. You can review those here and debate them here. Such debates exhaust my patience — so many smartest people in the room, such tiny uncertainty.

I have a different set of questions. What does “return to normal” mean? Are we all agreed on what that looks like? Something like “a return to 2019, except we care less about sports?”

The New York Times sent a survey to about 8,000 epidemiologists to find out which pre-pandemic activities they are still doing now, which they might resume after receiving a vaccine and which they might resume after the country achieves herd immunity.

About 700 of the scientists responded. Many of them said the new normal won’t be the normal of a year ago — which shouldn’t be surprising. What strikes me is how, in so many ways, these experts see the new normal looking very much like today.

Vasily Vlassov, who teaches at HSE University in Moscow, put it this way: “It is normal now; similar to 2019, never again.”

So what does the “normal now” mean to these epidemiologists? According to those quoted: continued mask wearing; social distancing indoors and out; reluctance to shake hands, travel by plane or take public transportation.

For these experts, there are still so many unknowns even with very effective vaccines being deployed — the durability of immunity, both from infection and the vaccines; how the virus might mutate; refusal to be vaccinated; the difficulty in developing a highly effective therapeutic drug for the virus. Not even one-third of the respondents “said they would be comfortable returning to more activities of daily life once they were vaccinated.”

In answer to the question “What will never return to normal?” Charles Poole, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, told the Times: “Every part of my daily life that involves interaction with anyone other than my spouse.”

Read the Times piece closely, though, and you might realize that what is “normal now” for epidemiologists isn’t normal for the rest of us. Only 26% have sent their children on outdoor play dates, according to the survey. Only 15% have interacted with people without social distancing or a mask. Just 3% have met with people they didn’t know very well.

“The epidemiologists are living with stringent precautions and new workarounds in place, far stricter than those of many ordinary Americans,” says the Times piece. “The epidemiologists have almost entirely avoided other parts of pre-pandemic life — including activities that many Americans are doing now.”

Is that because they know more than the rest of us? Because they’re more cautious as a group? More solitary? Because their economic status and their household arrangements allow them to avoid those activities?

Economist Tyler Cowen asked earlier this year — amidst many epidemiologists calling for lockdowns and lots of questions about how realistic their models were — a number of seemingly impertinent questions about epidemiologists as a class of scientists: what their political leanings are, how smart they are, how much they’re paid, what their track record on predictions and ability to model uncertainty of forecasts were.

Cowen came under heavy criticism (here’s one example) for that post, as if just posing the questions smeared epidemiology. But as lockdowns begin to pop up across the country — as opposed to a harm-reduction approach, (which I wrote about on Tuesday) — it’s important for us to know where experts are coming from when they make lockdown recommendations. Three-quarters of the Times’ survey respondents are academics. Does that mean they’re in positions to more easily weather a lockdown than others? Does it mean they’re trapped in a bubble of comparative privilege, or otherwise culturally distinct from other Americans?

Research communications today (if it’s evolved) tells researchers: Be transparent about your position. Don’t just be clear about what your research says; be clear about who you are as a person, where you’re coming from, how your life informs your application of research findings to problems.

Many researchers still think such disclosures are irrelevant. Stick to the science, they say.

But if you want to have authority as you tell us what your research means for our lives, we need to trust you (or trust those who trust you). Increasingly, that means we understand who you are — what “normal” looks like for you and how it informs your understanding of normal for everyone else.

For about half of Americans, that understanding of an expert’s “normal” is essential to granting them authority. Research communications needs to change its normal accordingly.