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The great unknown

In the face of Covid-19, scientists must stand up for uncertainty

On a scale of one to ten, how worried are you about coronavirus? Whatever the answer, chances are that some will say you’re worrying too much about what’s essentially a bad flu, while others will warn you that you cannot be afraid enough of impending apocalypse. 

Walk into any European supermarket and these wildly differing attitudes play out in the food aisles. While some shoppers panic-buy cartloads of pasta and disinfectant, others will finger-test every avocado and hug their friends on the way out. What causes such differences in behaviour? The answer is, of course, uncertainty. 

Scientists are used to uncertainty in a way the general public is not. An epidemic like the coronavirus makes this painfully clear. As people frantically search for guidance, much of the sensible scientific advice on coronavirus is drowned out by those with larger platforms—TV hosts, celebrities, anyone with a Twitter account and a knack for punchy language. 

This makes science communication so much harder. Uncertainty is extremely difficult to express, and often misunderstood. Take natural disasters, for example. Scientists can predict the likelihood of an earthquake or tsunami, but have to acknowledge that they may be wrong. As a result, people might evacuate for an earthquake that never happens, or fail to do so and suffer death and destruction. To the public, this can look as if scientists hardly ever get it right. In the worst case, they will be seen to be at fault.

Coronavirus suffers from the same fallacy. It is a new virus, so scientists can only be certain about the barest of measures. Wash your hands, contact a doctor if unwell, reduce travel and physical contact. In some countries, like the UK, the onus for providing such advice falls on individual scientific advisers, in this case Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, both distinguished medical and health researchers. Their visibility makes them easy to relate to—and easy to blame. This is demonstrated by the many Brits squirreling supplies and taking children out of school before government advice, arguing that the international community must know more than two men in ties. 

In other countries, like Germany, scientific advice is provided by a special organisation, in this case the Robert Koch institute. This works better on some levels—rather than just two people, whole research communities can feed into, and be held responsible for, policy—but it also means science remains anonymous and invisible. Rather than believing an impersonal entity, many Germans have chosen virologist Christian Drosten, a TV and radio personality, as their most trusted source for health advice on corona. 

The press creates an additional problem. Journalists love short quotes and clear statements. A story is true or false, and around 400 words long. Uncertainty is not part of their repertoire, and dealing with it a skill many either don’t possess or don’t want to use. 

Despite all this, the corona crisis may hold a spark of opportunity for science communication. Concepts such as fake news and fact fatigue are only viable as long as lives are not threatened. Now, people crave honesty, clarity and disinterested advice. These darkened times may be the moment measured debate flourishes again. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe