How researchers get heard

The Certainty of Good Enough

Uncertainty breeds paralysis. That’s the conventional wisdom.

But Lewandowsky et al (2015) instead propose that scientific uncertainty about climate change could (with the right framing) act as a kind of knowledge, and thus motivate action on the problem. “I don’t know how bad it could be, therefore I mitigate.” Kind of the precautionary principle on steroids.

I think what Lewandowsky and his colleagues propose is a bit of a cheat — there is an awful lot of “certainty” underneath that climate change uncertainty. But just raising the question of how uncertainty could actually serve as knowledge — i.e., as a kind of ersatz certainty that people can act on — leads one to consider the relationship between knowledge, certainty and a standard of action, especially amidst the pandemic.

Put simply: What level of certainty (or uncertainty) allows for meaningful action or behavior change? What level of certainty is good enough?

And is there a disconnect between what some scientists assume that level of certainty must be, how that level of certainty gets reported and corrected in the media (old style and social), and what the public needs?

For instance: When it comes to masks, I’m now like Ernie Banks, the ebullient Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer most remembered for his sunny quote “Let’s play two!” (Quite a feat of enthusiasm, given how painfully bad the Cubs were for most of Banks’ career.)

I wear two masks now — a KN95 covered by a looser, three-layer cotton version with an inner filter — on those rare occasions when I’m going into an indoor space that’s not my house. This personal doubleheader has been inspired by a recent New York Times piece and a commentary in Cell by virus transmission experts that double masking is better than single masking — and (depending on the mask) might be as effective as a single gold-standard N95 mask fitted and worn properly.

The experts’ theory: The more tortuous the path the virus has to take through multiple layers of filtration to get to you (or from you to someone else), the less likely it will be to arrive, or arrive in numbers to cause a serious infection.

“If the masks fit well,” write the Cell authors, “these combinations should produce an overall efficiency of >90% for particles 1 mm and larger, which corresponds to the size of respiratory aerosols that we think are most important in mediating transmission of COVID-19.”

But, as the Times article cautions, you should probably stop at two masks. The more layers you pile on, the harder it gets to breathe.

And see, if you wear glasses and your mask fit isn’t perfect and your lenses fog and then ice up with your first exhalation. The caution is that very few people achieve excellent mask fit — even medical professionals.

Here’s the point at which uncertainty threatens to overwhelm certainty, at least for me. My fit isn’t good. How much has my overall efficiency dropped? To 70%? To 50%? Should I shave off my beard to achieve a tighter seal?

To function, I have to ignore all that. “Double is better” is my mantra. And you know what? Regardless of fit, I’m probably right. I’m good enough to be functional.

A less successful example, I think: Zeynep Tufecki, the irrepressible sociologist who last March reversed public health recommendations on mask effectiveness for the public at large with this blistering New York Times’ opinion piece, tweeted yesterday the below response to a Times’ reporter’s cry for help on how long a mask is usable:

There are papers on this, which others in the thread she began cite. Basically, the guidance is: Let a used mask sit for a couple of days so the virus becomes inactive before using it again; or put it in the oven at a low temperature for an hour. There’s uncertainty. But it’s not hard.

Tufecki, though, insists in the thread we need CDC official guidance on the question. Maybe. But what if Americans got that guidance from the CDC and outlined a couple of steps to ensure your used mask was disinfected from its last use — a couple of steps that busy people don’t have the time to take? Would they then stop wearing masks, because they think a potentially infected mask is useless? Or would the guidance undermine their faith in mask efficacy, with unforeseen consequences?

In science communications, we should always be asking: What’s the potential blowback of putting perfection ahead of the perfectly good?

All of us are trying to stay afloat amidst massive and rising uncertainty about dose timing, dose sufficiency, new variants, and unclear distribution regimes. And yet almost all of the communication of the science and research focuses not on what we are pretty certain of but on all our uncertainty and how it must be fixed.

In a maelstrom, we don’t need a focus on doubt. And we aren’t in the best position to appreciate the agonizing incrementalism of scientific progress. We need a sturdy raft. We need the certainty of good enough.