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Paul Fanlund: How to think about science in the time of COVID-19

Paul Fanlund: How to think about science in the time of COVID-19

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Dietram Scheufele poses for a portrait outside of Hiram Smith Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on Thursday.

Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

With scientists and science itself seemingly under attack during the COVID-19 crisis, I find myself wondering what Dietram Scheufele thinks.

I first met Scheufele, an award-winning professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 2013 and have written about his work twice, most recently in 2016.

In that second column, Scheufele argued for answering the apparent rise in anti-science sentiment not with vitriol but by modifying narratives. For example, he talked about climate change not as a left versus right issue, but instead by framing green energy as a matter of economic and national security. “Do you want to send your children to wars in (oil-producing) countries you cannot accurately place on a map?” he asked rhetorically.

He said scientists need to articulate such “value tests” and as an example pointed — prophetically — to flu research at UW “that will allow us to effectively defend this country from a biological attack, and so on.”

A native of Germany, his teaching focuses on the intersection of science and media and the rapid transformations within each. Now those transformations are occurring at light speed.

Scheufele was recently featured in a Smithsonian Magazine article offering tips on how to avoid misinformation about COVID-19.

We talked this week about the status of science and its connection to pandemic politics. Here are excerpts, edited for length and clarity:

Let me start by asking you how you think the reputation of science is faring during the pandemic?

I actually think there have been a couple of positives. A lot of people expected that after the 2016 election that science would be under siege and maybe lose public trust as a result, and it certainly has been under siege from political quarters. But recent survey data from the National Science Board showed a slight increase in public trust in science, actually also a slight increase in public trust in journalism, so you know, if that’s the Trump bump or not, there certainly hasn’t been a decline, and I think that’s really promising.

I think the second positive outcome is that we now have a population eagerly — maybe over-eagerly — awaiting a vaccine on COVID-19. That is certainly in stark contrast to some of the conversations we’ve had about vaccine hesitancy and so on.

The fact is that most of the science that we’re doing right now on COVID-19 will turn out to be wrong. We’re dealing with an extremely compressed timeframe, we’re trying things out, a lot of it won’t work, so we’re actually in an interesting spot where we’re trying to communicate science that we know is most likely turning out to be wrong. We need to do that in a way that doesn’t undermine scientific credibility.

I think (the idea) that scientists shouldn’t dictate policies is right. The decisions that we have to make have to be informed by science, but they can’t be made by science.

I’ll give you a parallel to what COVID-19 ultimately requires us to do, in my opinion, which is like speeding on highways. We are making societal decisions where we’re basically weighing deaths with other civil rights or economic rights.

We will have to make a decision that weighs the economics, civil rights and so on against people’s right to live, literally, and not just their own lives, because they can infect others.

So that’s where the second really tricky part comes in, that the decisions have to be informed by the best available science. But by definition they will involve more than the best available science, they will involve values and other things and that’s kind of the tricky part.

We’re in a state where state Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley recently charged Gov. Tony Evers with “the very definition of tyranny” for his listening to the best scientifically informed medical advice and ordering people to stay home. What is your reaction?

I would disentangle respect for science from Evers being attacked. Evers is taking the best available science, but he’s making political choices based on that, or he’s making good policy as he sees it. … So I think partly what we’re seeing is a response to Evers, rather than a response to the science.

There is a parallel to smoking. People smoke, not because they don’t agree with the science, they know it’s not good for them, they choose to do it anyway because (of) the pleasure of smoking or the social expectation of it... and I think the same thing is true here. People may say well, I agree with the science, but I’m doing X, Y, Z.

We have gotten to this point as a society where we’re thinking so little about our collective. I think that’s kind of the interesting question to ask: Has our social capital declined to a point where … there is zero political value for keeping the state shut down? If the economy of the state tanks, it’s not going to look good for (Evers). So he’s making a very, very difficult choice for himself for the sake of the state.

For a previous column, we talked about communicating in a way most people could relate to. I assume that you would think that that’s also important in the stay-at-home orders.

Yes, absolutely, and I think in this case it’s maybe even more important than it’s ever been before, for two reasons. One is we have to do this really, really quickly because some of these measures are implemented on very short notice, and, two, we need to get large societal buy-in given how deeply disruptive some of the interventions are.

We’re not talking about a small tax increase, we’re not talking about having more bike lanes in Madison, and we’re not talking about reallocating school funding. We’re talking about things that are disruptive to people’s livelihoods and to the American way of life.

And so being able to communicate that in a way that resonates with things that we all think are deeply important and the core for our identity is really important. But there’s very little time to do that well, the playing field is constantly changing and the timeframe is unprecedented.

As a society we’re trying to make fundamental changes in a very short time period with a very uncertain time horizon for when that’s going to end or what that’s going to lead to, and we need to be able to talk about this in a way that resonates with what is important to all of us and not just the public health concerns but the economy, civil liberties and so on.

Some populations are going to be much more vulnerable to this than others and there are lots of very complex questions that are going to bubble to the surface. Unless we find a good way for societal buy-in, I think we’re going to have a problem.

Historically, big initiatives like the New Deal and Social Security came out of big crises in this country. But far be it from me to tell the governor how to do things. I think they’re good examples to look at. We’re seeing that (New York Gov. Andrew) Cuomo or others are playing that role extremely well.

In the Smithsonian article, you suggest doing what you call “lateral reading” in order to be fully informed during the COVID-19 crisis. Can you share your quick prescription for getting the best information?

I would say three things. One is there are a lot of people writing about COVID-19, most of whom don’t know a lot more than you or I would know about the science.

But there are a number of people who are highly informed, and Helen Branswell (a global health reporter for Stat News) is one of them. She was a science writer-in-residence here at Wisconsin a few years back and we connected when we were both fellows at Harvard. Her career focus has been about flu and infectious diseases, so this is somebody who knows this thing inside out, this is somebody who knows what the evidence says, she knows what the evidence does not say, and I think that’s a really important question. On Twitter, Helen (@HelenBranswell) for me is a really important filter.

The other thing is that the more diverse people’s information sources are the better. In other words, disagreement is good even in our information intake. I’m still a big fan of that quote from Franz Kafka that we ought to only read books that “bite and sting us.”

That means looking at different sources that have different takes on the same problem because a lot of the questions are not scientific, a lot of questions that we’re struggling with are societal issues. When should we reopen the economy, how should we weigh economic versus civil rights versus other considerations?

The third thing that I would say is we do need to realize that science is trying to figure this out as much as we are.

In other words, new science is coming out almost daily and yes, everybody’s racing to have a vaccine but it’ll take longer than we think. Even if the vaccine goes into testing sooner than we think, it’s still going to be a long time before that’s available to everybody.

So we need to realize that a lot of the facts that are floating around are going to be wrong because this is the first time we’re doing this and hopefully, we’ll do this well.

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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

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