How researchers get heard
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Please Curate the Pandemic

Is staying six feet apart from others guaranteed to make you safe?

Not according to this report, which makes me dislike all those heavily exhaling bikers and runners along my normal dog walking route even more.

But it’s based on data visualization by a “tech company.” Should I trust it?

I could spend hours trying to find out, if I had them.

There are no ministries or departments of COVID-19 information, other the single-person bureau otherwise known as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

I’d guess most of us are secretly grateful for this bureaucratic gap, given our various governments’ performances in other aspects of pandemic response.

Sure, there are scientists who have our trust. But who knows how long they will have the microphones?

As Roger Pielke, Jr. points out in a new piece in Slate, the National Academies new expert advisory committee on the pandemic — which was organized at the behest of the White House and designed to provide evidence-based rapid response on evolving pandemic questions — has been a bust. Culprits include the White House (which doesn’t seem to want the information after all) and the panel.

When it comes to information and knowledge, we’re all DIY right now.

Each of us is assembling information and knowledge.

Each of us is evaluating that information and knowledge on the fly, or (more likely) evaluating the evaluators we decide to trust — our friends and family, some rando on social, or an expert.

And each of us is implementing that information and knowledge, however incompletely and haphazardly.

Many find this DIY state of affairs liberating (if also exhausting).

But it’s also quite possibly fatal.

Ideally, the most important information and knowledge in a pandemic should be

  • vetted for accuracy and relevance,
  • contextualized within other evidence,
  • made actionable, and then
  • made universally accessible.

And the whole process performed quickly and updated continuously.

For basic operations such as washing hands, this process happened — because washing hands has been part of baseline public health best practices forever.

What about masks? What about the basics of social distancing? Still confusing.

In a DIY information and knowledge world, very few of us have perfect access to the information and knowledge we need. Our inputs are highly constrained — by our time, resources, attention, luck, socioeconomic situation, access to paywalled studies, degree of background skill and knowledge, level of discernment and (probably most important today) the cognitive filters imposed by belonging to our communities.

Adequate information and knowledge in a DIY environment becomes privileged, available only to those who have the time and means and position to hunt them down.

In addition, most of us are relying on some form of the industrial model of research communications. By which I mean: Research-based information and knowledge are handed by the researcher to a PIO/government office, which then market those products (if they see fit) to the press and on social media, where we see it or don’t see it.

The contingencies and leakage of this information/knowledge chain are dizzying. Should the press happen to cover the research and/or someone we follow communicate about it and convey it accurately, and should we encounter that press coverage or social mention, then we might absorb a piece of research or information that might or might not be credible or relevant to the crisis or useful to our situations. Researchers on Twitter are only circumventing a couple links in this chain. It’s not a leak-free pipeline.

Equal to the contingencies and leakage: the lack of vetting or filtration in the industrial communications model. It’s not a mask you want to wear while grocery shopping.

Welcome to the infovore’s dilemma: Crises produce a “high info-garbage environment,” so the faster you consume information, the worse the average quality of your information almost certainly becomes. Even good models have fine print, as Purdue’s Aaron Carroll kind of sheepishly admitted yesterday:

As a response, some have taken to wiki-building of the best available information. The best I’ve found: the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, started and sponsored by Newspeak House in London, an independent residential college of political technologists.

By “best,” however, I mean: is well organized and has oodles of links to pore over. Wikis aren’t best at efficiently giving us the best available evidence and knowledge upon which we can confidently make decisions.

Most wikis are antithetical to curation. Their solution to the infovore dilemma (eliminate the constant grazing) just makes the other problem worse, makes the rabbit hole you do dive down deeper. The Coronavirus Tech Handbook’s section on research on the efficacy of masks, for instance, has 19 links, some of which themselves are link lists. LitCovid — not technically a hub, but NIH’s lit hub of science articles about COVID-19—is even less user-friendly.

Research loves compendia. Compendia slow us down now.

If we were designing content with our audience’s needs and anxieties in mind, we might start with the FAQ. The New York Times and the Washington Post have both built FAQs, some of which are very useful for answering basic questions.

But neither is terribly accessible on the mobile sites of either outlet. Neither seems a selling point for either outlet. Not everyone regards these outlets as impartial. Other FAQs, like Vox’s on mask wearing, misread the conclusiveness of some of the research they rely upon. There are very few science journalists who know how to evaluate papers and weigh evidence properly.

What’s the solution? For me, it’s to establish a Cochrane-like function to deliver those National Academies-like rapid response summaries of the evidence — not on the questions the White House is asking, for instance, but the questions the public is asking about masks, immunity boosting, social distancing, lockdown lives lost through economic damage vs. let-it-rip lives lost and economic damage.

That function would be expensive, and it would need to be indisputably impartial; so the foundation or foundations that bankrolled it would have to also be above reproach. It would have to be smart and responsive and full of marketing savvy, not just scientifically unimpeachable and crystal clear in its conclusions. It would involve a level of coordination of researchers usually reserved for wartime. And here we are.

That function won’t be invented any time soon. But research-driven organizations and for-profits do something similar the same, with a lot less stress. If you’re producing content that’s totally on point for COVID-19, great. Now group and present that content so it answers (at not much more than a glance) your community’s questions within the bounds of your expertise. Update it as frequently as evidence changes substantially. And market that curation and user-friendliness at every touch point.

Own their questions. Curate your answers to do so. That’s service to a community, and a great way to consolidate those communities’ trust in your authority.