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On the Role of the Non-Expert in a Crisis

One of my favourite things about me as a scientist is that I know how to say “I don’t know”. 

tweeted this early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and I return to it often  – especially as I’m about to post to social media (which, let’s be frank, is more often than pre-COVID days). 

As the virus continues to spread, many of us have increasingly taken to our devices for work, social connection, and information – especially COVID-19 updates. In addition to traditional news reports and social journalism platforms like Medium, paywalls have come down around academic journals in an unprecedented commitment to make research on COVID-19 freely and quickly available for the duration of the outbreak. The COVID-19 literature has reached more than 50,000 papers published since January, and is doubling every 20 days—among the biggest explosions of scientific literature ever. And you can add my scientific voice to that choir – after co-publishing an overview of COVID-19 in pregnancy, it became impossible to keep up using my usual methods of sifting through and absorbing the literature.

Given the volume and pace of COVID-19 research, collaborative archives and data-mining technologies have emerged to highlight quality papers, usually explicitly preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. Yet, even the most conscientious experts in virology and epidemiology don’t have time to read through entire articles to figure out the added value, bottom line, and limitations of every paper. And while social media platforms are taking an unusually activist stance in attempting to root out misleading content, plenty of scientific misinformation still gets out (and continues to circulate). 

Social media can be a place we can clarify scientific misrepresentations. 

Whether we interact online in the protected spaces of Facebook, or out in the great wide open on Twitter, we all collect a diverse following of friends, family and acquaintances. My personal friends list includes colleagues across my areas of research in anthropology, public health, and medical education (people I know in real life), acquaintances from school days, relatives, and other moms of children with special healthcare needs (people I may not know in real life). My friends and followers are mostly scientists or “science-adjacent” (such as folks who  engage daily with medical interventions but otherwise don’t interact with research). And some are anti-scientists.

Every single one of us is navigating the online blitz of COVID-19 information, searching for that sweet spot to calibrate our activities in way that minimizes our individual risk – which seems to lie somewhere between re-creating the advanced containment capabilities of a biosafety level (BSL) 3 (or higher) lab and going back to pre-COVID routines. 

So what, then, is our role as non-expert scientists during a global pandemic? 

EVERYONE wants to go back to “normal”. 

Without a vaccine, our collective risk of contracting COVID-19 is mediated only by a social contract with people who are fatigued – because what we are doing is HARD. The pull to return to “normal” is so strong that it is easy to lose track of our ethical responsibility as scientists to do no harm in the community. 

For example, a misleading story about a confusing statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) made the rounds last week. The story had all the flickering neon signs of poor science communication: The headline was salacious, it presented no review of data or analysis, and there was no explanation of the difference between asymptomatic (an infected person who does not have symptoms) and pre-symptomatic (an infected person who does not have symptoms YET) carriers – a distinction which in practically impossible to make. Many science advocates immediately discredited the original post, but the story had been already been shared many thousands of times on social media. 

The story was simply bad reporting. But this is not the only reason that scientists should not have shared it. The reason not to forward such pieces is because your “share” as a scientist can be interpreted as an implied endorsement of a behavior change (e.g., breaking lockdown or not wearing a mask when you do not have COVID-19 symptoms) that could adversely affect community transmission of the virus. The commentary generally associated with re-posts of the WHO (CNBC?) story was well-intentioned, along the lines of “Phew! Now I can rest easy knowing I can’t unknowingly spread the virus to the vulnerable!” – because nobody wants to be the one to bring this disaster into their community. This remark easily translates into “I can stop the recommended infection prevention mechanisms because I find them bothersome”. Staying at home and mask-wearing when you need to be in public, even when you have no symptoms of being sick, is currently the most effective intervention for preventing community spread of COVID-19. Plenty of infographics effectively convey that the purpose of wearing a cloth face mask in public is not to prevent you from getting the virus, but to protect other people from getting the virus from you. And yet, these measures are being met with public resistance, even when required by law, because paradigm shifts in behavior are difficult – especially when everyone with internet access is looking for a way to get back to how things were, all while laser-focused on the emerging underlying science in real time

Although social media can feel like spending time chatting to colleagues at the bar at a scientific conference, in my opinion it is not the place to openly figure out how you feel about a public health recommendation that comes from an off-hand comment at a press conference or poor science reporting, just as you wouldn’t publicly post a first draft of a manuscript or thesis chapter just as you are putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were). There are mechanisms to share those thoughts with a smaller group of friends whose opinions you trust. Such a share is not teaching the public about the process of science production or policy-making. At the current moment, the stakes are too high.  

And yet, I see you. I know that the pull to return to “normal” is so strong that we can lose track of our commitment to the scientific method. I urge you to take a quick pause to consider each of the following questions before you click: 

  1. Does the story come from a credible source? 
  2. Does the story adequately report the data and analysis of the scientific study? Even if point #1 is satisfied, sources we trust should be subject to critical review/scrutiny
  3. Will this post affect someone’s behavior in a way that endangers the community?

We are purveyors in the scientific method and language. It is our obligation to post thoughtfully, to promote understanding of the science behind public health recommendations. Because what you endorse can affect a behavior change in someone who follows you. 

Please post ethically.

Our lives literally depend on it.

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

About the Author
  • Kathleen Muldoon 0000-0001-5024-4183

    Kathleen Muldoon, PhD, is an anthropologist investigating lemur ecology, evolution, and extinction, and a medical education scholar interested in the effectiveness of professional education on public health knowledge. She is an Associate Professor of Anatomy at Midwestern University, Glendale AZ, where she works to promote congenital CMV awareness and behavioral interventions in the community. She and her husband are the proud parents of three children: her six-year-old son has multiple disabilities due to congenital CMV. Follow Kathleen on Twitter @ProfMuldoon

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