Commentary: Science goes viral, thanks to COVID-19. But there are roadblocks along the way
The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed an interest in science, which can be used as an opportunity to grow trust between scientists and the general public, says Dr Rebecca Tan.
SINGAPORE: Unless you own shares in Zoom or Netflix, it’s hard to see even the faintest silver lining to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
There have been a staggering 60,000 deaths worldwide, the global economy has ground to a halt and everyday life has been profoundly altered.
But as a science communicator there has been at least one positive effect of COVID-19, the first of which is an unprecedented interest in science.
A FINE DAY FOR SCIENCE
Up until this point, it seemed as though fighting scientific misinformation was a fool’s errand, a brave but ultimately futile quest against trolls and well-meaning relatives alike. I had long given up telling people that drinking lemon water in the morning probably does nothing to ‘boost’ their immunity, only speaking up if the things they wanted to try actually sounded dangerous.
But all of a sudden, my social media feeds were filled with science: infographics about how SARS-CoV-2 spreads and charts explaining the difference between linear versus exponential growth; even links to primary research papers.
As someone whose professional goal is making scientific research accessible to a wider audience, I was heartened to see this surge of information rising up to displace rumours about COVID-19 and how it spreads.
Many international news organisations have put out visually-appealing and interactive infographics to help readers understand the rapidly evolving outbreak.
Other publications, such as the online science magazine Undark, have held COVID-19-related Ask Me Anything sessions, while the World Health Organization launched its first TikTok campaign.
For our part at Asian Scientist Magazine, in addition to our regular coverage of scientific research across Asia, we have started a series called #stopcovidiots to share bite-sized facts about COVID-19 specifically.
Since February, COVID-19 related articles have boosted traffic on our site by 40 per cent, reflecting the hunger for more scientifically-backed information.
SPEED AND THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH
Scientists have been working at a frenetic pace to answer some of the most pressing questions about the novel coronavirus: is it mutating? What does it bind to? Can existing drugs be used to stop it? But the speed with which everyone is jumping on the bandwagon also adds to the complexity of understanding the issue at hand.
Searching ‘COVID-19’ on the medical search engine PubMed turns up no less than 2,500 research papers, all of them published in just the last two months.
In fact, so many papers on COVID-19 have been published in journals and released as pre-prints that researchers have built a 29,000 paper-strong database so that artificial intelligence can help them make sense of it.
Even experts are struggling to drink from the firehose of COVID-19 research being pushed out at the moment.
Another issue with speed is that it short circuits the process of peer review, which, for all its flaws, attempts to prevent weak research from entering the scientific literature.
Sharing information as quickly as possible is crucial to containing the virus, but ensuring that the information is accurate is even more important than ever, as taking personal and policy decisions based on faulty information can have dire consequences.
When a research group in India put out a pre-print suggesting that the similarities between SARS-CoV-2 and HIV were “uncanny,” it sparked panic and was shared thousands of times before being retracted.
It turns out that the similarities the team—not virologists but experts in protein biology—had noticed are actually found in many other viruses, and do not in themselves suggest anything particularly dangerous about SARS-CoV-2.
In other cases, sample sizes are small and patient populations unique, making the findings difficult to generalise. Because of this, reports often contradict each other, turning evidence-based decision-making even more challenging.
My worry as a science communicator is that this apparent conflict might erode the public’s trust in science, when in fact scientists know that this seeming lack of consensus is a feature and not a bug in the scientific process.
This is precisely how science is supposed to work; we test different hypotheses and reach conclusions full of caveats that are not truth itself but approximations of the truth. Unfortunately, this is not the certainty that most people are looking for.
So while it is great that people are sharing research articles on WhatsApp, all information needs to be evaluated critically, no matter how ‘scientific’ or ‘official’ it looks.
A good place to start would be to understand the distinction between a peer-reviewed article and a pre-print, and secondly to consider whether the expertise of the research group is relevant to the topic at hand.
Just as you wouldn’t trust your accountant to do your plumbing, discipline matters when it comes to whether or not to trust an authority figure.
THE LONG GAME: TRUST
While the increased interest in scientific papers from the general public is welcomed, there is still a need for contextualisation and analysis of the research findings. This is a job for science communicators like myself, who try to explain the implications of research to the public but also highlight the limitations as well.
While we are working hard right now—digesting the information being put out, conducting interviews with experts and writing up articles about COVID-19 - our work will continue even when the virus is eventually contained and the spike in interest dies down.
That is because our long-term goal is to build two-way trust between science and the public: for scientists to trust that lay people will not misunderstand their work and for the public to trust the integrity of the scientific process and research.
In a 2015 survey of nearly 1,000 Singaporeans, we found that while most people agreed that science was important and relevant to their everyday life, the level of scientific literacy was uneven, with many still being confused, for example, about the inability of antibiotics to treat viral infections.
What COVID-19 has showed me, however, is that people can grasp scientific concepts very readily—when motivated to do so.
To my amazement, terms like “basic reproduction number” and “epidemiology” have now become part of everyday parlance. The hope is that as readers expose themselves to more science news, they become more comfortable with it and better able to discern which sources are reliable.
As more people turn to science for answers, I hope that trust in scientists will be deepened and that scientifically-backed policy advice will be heeded. It is our only hope.
Dr Rebecca Tan is the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.