How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

The Curve is a Failing Story

  1. The curve is a fairy tale — tracing a Hollywood arc for a single metric. It’s an arc that cleanly resolves, which is unrealistic. The curve obscures both real-life messiness and all the other work and costs and tradeoffs of that resolution.
  2. People who refused to socially distance or wear masks aren’t ignorant of the science — they simply have a different understanding of the science than the rest of us.

The environmental sociologist Holly Buck makes these arguments in a new pair of provocative essays (“The Tragic Omissions of Governance by Curve” and “Why Lockdown Protests Are Not Going to Stay Fringe”). Her arguments are growing harder to refute, as we in the United States are now watching (as summer builds) the evaporation of the curve as a narrative that governs policy and governs individual decisions.

The curve is evaporating, Buck says, in large part because:

  • A cropped curve was offered to the public initially, urging us to flatten it. This shortened and simplified the long game of battling the virus, engendering cynicism when the mission was accomplished, only to have the goalposts move further and further into the future.
  • The curve measures deaths or cases or hospital capacity, but doesn’t measure every other factor involved in a pandemic response — economics as well as less quantifiable impacts such as mental health degradation.
  • The curve initially, instantly became a roadmap, squashing alternatives.

“The curve looks like an advancement in science,” she writes, “in modeling capacity — but it actually results in a reduction in our capacity to fully grasp the situation.” (And, I’d add, our capacity to sustain action.)

These arguments aren’t Buck’s alone, although she synthesizes them better than anyone I’ve read. They’re also more or less in line with the conventional and discredited paradigm of clarity in science communications that, curiously, science keeps falling back on in times of crisis. If only we had included more complexity …

But her observation that protestors of lockdown continuation had their own legitimate readings of pandemic science — one that accepted the spread of the disease as inevitable — that’s a little harder to swallow for scientists and science communicators alike. Because, while we want to listen to the communities we’re communicating with, in the end most of us want “the science to be heard” — i.e., with the messages we want to convey.

What Buck’s arguing, instead, is that people will hear the science and make their own interpretations. It becomes their science:

There is a perception that protestors are anti-science. Rather, many protestors are very much interested in science, but they have questions about how science is produced, used, and communicated. (It may seem counterintuitive, but I have observed that this is common with people interested in chemtrails and vaccines as well.)…

Take this guy. He told me supported the lockdowns at first, when scientific uncertainty was high. Now, though, he believes the virus is more infectious and less deadly than first thought, which demands a different strategy, and can quote a dozen various serosurveys that seem to point to a similar picture. He is upset that his wife has had a mammogram postponed, because even a few months can make a difference when you’re dealing with cancer. … To many protestors, the response does not seem commensurate with what the science indicates about the severity of the threat.

Arguments about “follow the science,” obviously, are pointless in the face of people who already follow the science and have strong opinions about it.

The curve is a simple story that has fallen apart under pressure. Buck thinks this has ramifications for climate activism — for the curves activists think should govern the world.

But the opposite is also true: Stories are curves, as Buck points out in comparing the arc of the curve to the arc of the classic Western narrative. Stories as curves are powerful, but also escapist. We hold onto them far too long at the expense of other options; and when we reject them, it’s usually with force if not violence, a reaction to their deception.

Does the pandemic expose the vulnerabilities of science communication practice that, in rejecting mere “clarity,” now relies far too much on the magic of storytelling? Buck yearns for “shapes beyond curves” that would accommodate, as she puts it, “a collectively designed simulation for complex system governance—climate change intervention, COVID-19 management, sustainable development goals, whatever.”

That sounds more like a model, of which we have plenty. But perhaps not ones that give us what we need.