How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Science is Failing Its Communications Test

Politico reports this morning that Morgan Stanley economists are now predicting a 30.1% annualized decline in US GDP for Q2 — which would be the worst quarterly performance in 74 years. That’s the good news. The bad news: lots of other economists think that prediction might be optimistic. The really bad news: Those in power in the United States seem ready to risk the full wrath of a pandemic instead of the economic depression fighting that pandemic might bring on (even though their actions might well give us both).

The U.S. chapter of the COVID-19 crisis was always going to be about epidemiology vs. politics and economics and social psychology. Epidemiology was at some point going to be forced to present some serious modeling about how its recommended public health measures were going to be less harmful to public health (and all that supports it) than would be throwing tens of millions out of work, shuttering hundreds of thousands of businesses and tanking the economy for months or longer.

Epidemiology, we might say, was going to have to do more than just be science; it was going to have to be persistently convincing against powerful competing interests and dynamics.

An old friend, Dave Lowenstein, sent a thoughtful response to my essay to you last Thursday. Dave essentially asked two questions:

  1. Why aren’t we isolating high-risk groups as the core of our strategy against the spread of the virus, since the data shows COVID-19 hits those groups disproportionately the hardest (and their removal from harm’s way would considerably ease the strain on our health care system)?
  2. Why aren’t the costs of public health interventions (such as lockdowns) being weighed against the public health costs of their damage to the economy?

I began a quick email back, and then realized my answers to Dave’s questions were unsatisfying — well, we have to isolate everyone because that’s the only way to stop the spread and protect the health care system…but if the only ones who get hit hard are the high-risk groups, then wouldn’t isolating them save the health care system aaaaggh? Only a day later, after considerable reading, did I feel as if I had enough information to craft an intelligent response — to move from “everyone needs to isolate now” as a mantra to that phrase as informed conclusion. I’ve published our full exchange on Medium, and I encourage all of you to dive into it, especially for Dave’s careful formulations and pushback.

The problem: Dave’s questions are ones many thinking people are posing, and science either hasn’t answered them or doesn’t have the means to answer them. There was virtually no content addressing them — certainly no journalism. Perhaps Morgan Stanley or Moody’s or Goldman Sachs is doing this modeling, but they’re not sharing it with all of us.

Which creates an even bigger problem. Quoting Dave:

Relative to the global population, I’m pretty well educated and informed, and have a pretty good lay-person ability to synthesize and understand data, and to assess relative risk based on that data. I’m also not anti-government or anti-authority, i.e., I’m not particularly resistant to having people in authority suggest or tell me what to do, as long as I have a baseline level of trust in their motives and commitment to making decisions driven by facts, data, and qualified subject matter experts. I’m not certain if this makes me more or less receptive to effective messaging, but right now I’m not convinced we’re on the right track (with making fact-based and data-driven decisions that reflect a broad perspective of societal factors and expert inputs), and I’m remarkably unmoved by the messaging that’s coming from our leadership (not just at the Federal level).

He’s not the only one, as we’re now seeing. It’s easy to now shout “follow the science” and tweet #notdying4WallStreet to the like-minded. It’s going to be much, much harder to motivate universal public commitment to a prolonged war against an invisible enemy, especially in the face of deepening and widening impoverishment, especially when we’ve been repeatedly told it won’t kill the vast majority of us. And if we fail, it won’t be simply a failure of leadership. It will be a failure of science communications — or, to be more precise, of scientists to recognize that making their case is about convincing us it’s also the best-case scenario.

Science communications has to be far better than “we’re scientists, trust us”  —  especially when the stakes are this high.