The media has come under heavy scrutiny for how they cover Covid-19, for good and sometimes unfair reasons. It is absolutely true that covering a rapidly spreading pandemic in an age where science is being conducted at a record pace and under the constant spotlight is a truly difficult task. But mistakes under duress are mistakes though, and the only way we get better at this job is to learn from them.
One of the recurring themes in misinformation slips about the pandemic is the failure to reason and convey uncertainty to readers. One glaring example of how many journalists and media outlets have failed to public is their coverage of so-called lab leak theory From the origins of Covid-19.
This became relevant again recently when Vanity Fair Published a rather amazing report Written by Catherine Eban on the long and ugly fight between scientists and officials over the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
It is worth remembering how the initial reports of the lab leak theory were greeted by the press when it first began to emerge in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, it was widely agreed that China was likely withholding information about the origins of the epidemic, just as it had originally downplayed the importance of the virus itself.
At the same time, there has been a lot of nonsense floating around, such as claims that Covid-19 was closely related to HIV (it’s not) or that it was designed by Bill Gates (also no). when Republican Senator Tom Cotton speculated That Covid could have escaped the lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), many scientists have condemned it as the same conspiratorial nonsense, and several journalists have echoed it.
This includes me – I posted an article On February 6, 2020, he warned that the coronavirus could be a big problem. I’m proud of that in general, but not the part where I referred to the “conspiracy theory” that the virus was from a Wuhan lab.
But the laboratory’s origins weren’t a conspiracy theory – it was a credible scientific hypothesis, at a time when we knew very little about how Covid-19 arose. The WIV was doing research on SARS-like coronaviruses, and we later learned that shortly before the pandemic started They took offline a huge database of viruses that they studied.
As it was known at the time, the Government of China had a file History of lying and covering up disease outbreaksincluding the original SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, which would always have made it very difficult to get to the bottom of a situation like this.
Eban, notably, found that a few scientists were writing to each other that there may have been a laboratory origin for Covid-19. But publicly, they said something different, closing the door on the theory of laboratory origins.
It’s not that they were hiding hard evidence of a laboratory’s origin. Instead, there seemed to be a push to prematurely resolve the conversation – perhaps out of a sense that the audience couldn’t be trusted to deal with the uncertainty.
Why we need to improve living with uncertainty
This isn’t just a matter of media or scientific criticism – it’s a huge problem for our faltering efforts to prepare for the next pandemic.
The truth is that we don’t have enough evidence, one way or another, to definitively prove whether Covid-19 originated in the lab or in the wild. that’s good. We should be comfortable expressing this uncertainty.
The origins of Covid are far from the only story during the pandemic where there were efforts to put forward a “united front” or the emergence of scholars who all agreed, when in fact the science was uncertain and scholars did not agree.
The attitudes we lack here — tolerance for uncertainty, a willingness to withhold reassuring but imperfect answers, the courage to admit mistakes of the past — are attitudes we will need to embrace to do better in the coming pandemic.
But the challenge of uncertainty goes the other way, too. Often, Communication seems a bit shy To make tentative conclusions based on the available evidence, sometimes waiting for the final word from the very CDC conservative and hardened before pressing “publish”.
In February 2021, people wanted to know if vaccines had reduced the odds of passing Covid on to another person. There was some preliminary evidence that they did. But because the evidence wasn’t confirmed, and because they didn’t want vaccinated people to drop every caution, many public health workers were hesitant to say anything about it.
me He wrote an article on the growing evidence that vaccines reduce transmissiona theory that turns out to be accurate, although it would be months before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came to the same conclusion.
Efforts to create a “united front” are meant to reduce misinformation and confusion, but sometimes end up causing it, as everyone waits to see what others have to say. I’ve come to believe that it’s best to explain directly and publicly what you believe in and why, acknowledging the difference where appropriate.
Reviving trust in the media
Since the beginning of the pandemic, health officials have made sometimes questionable statements, often exaggerated by the media. First, some officials told us to worry more about the flu. Then we were told not to buy masks. The setbacks in these and other questions may have contributed to a decline in trust in our site Public Health Foundation and the media.
Instead of trying to present a united front, scholars should say there is disagreement, and explain exactly why. Rather than trying to provide readers with the “answer” about big questions like the origins of Covid, journalists should feel comfortable saying we don’t know for sure, sharing the evidence we have, and being okay with not knowing.
Experts should also feel more comfortable disagreeing with other experts in public when they disagree privately. One painful lesson was that our public health officials are only human, and a recurring theme in Eban’s article is that they often had huge discrepancies between what they believed in private and what they said publicly.
Based on the discourse on the lab leak theory, it is not clear that we learned the lessons above. We need to adapt – quickly – if we are to do better in the next pandemic.
A version of this story was initially published in The future is perfect the news. Register here to subscribe!