COVID-19 Reporting and Scientific Communication Confusion

I don’t want this blog to turn into correcting the media reports about COVID or pointing out their flaws (check out for that), but I do think it’s important to point out some common misconceptions people have after reading media reports about science; these misconceptions have only been heightened during COVID, especially as more news outlets do not have health news reporters on staff and instead rely on reporters with no scientific background.

The two issues I want to cover are the language of science and the changing nature of science.

The Language of Science

Academic scientific communication is difficult to relay to laypeople. It’s especially difficult if you have no scientific training and you’re tasked with relaying information you don’t fully understand to the general public in a way they can understand and that catches attention and generates clicks or views. Oh, and you also have to do that in one headline or image or soundbite. You can’t accurately relay the subtleties of scientific tentativeness and word choice (surviving vs. infectious, aerosol vs. airborne) in those situations.

Scientific Tentativeness

Scientific tentativeness is a principle that governs scientific communication. Because study results are not presumed to be 100% accurate (you can always find exceptions to results, even if something is true in nearly 100% of cases) and because new research that unfolds over time can lead to changes in current scientific knowledge, scientists will not say something “always” or “never” or “will” do something. They say something “frequently happens” or “is unlikely to happen” or “may happen.” When reported outside of the context of study results, this scientific tentativeness can make it sound like scientists don’t know anything with any certainty when in fact they know many things with a high degree of certainty.

Surviving vs. Infectious

In March 2020, CNBC reported trace amounts of COVID viral RNA “survived” on surfaces in the Princess Cruise Ship cabins for up to 17 days after quarantined passengers disembarked, and various news outlets soon repeated this information. The issue, though, was the accuracy of the implication that those trace amounts of virus were infectious. Politfact checked this claim and discovered that trace amounts of viral RNA do not automatically equate to a virus “surviving” and being infectious. In fact, Politifact quoted Dr. Akiko Iwaski, professor of immunology and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University: “A piece of viral RNA is not the same as a living virus. In order for a virus to be infectious, it has to have an intact membrane, spike protein and the whole genome intact (there are close to 30,000 bases of genomic code in the viral genome)” (para. 10). After the fact checking, CNBC and other sites corrected their headlines to more accurately reflect the situation.

There is research about how long COVID survives on surfaces (again, note the distinction between “surviving” and “infectious”), although the CDC has explained touching surfaces is not the “primary” way the virus spreads. Here are some resources to learn more about viruses and surfaces:

Airborne vs. Aerosol

It’s unknown whether COVID can truly be classified as airborne or whether it should only be classified as spreading via aerosols at this point, and ABC News did a piece that provided some insight into this as well as definitions of the different methods of transmission that have been reported with COVID. Their medical expert, Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, explained: “The science supporting [airborne transmission] is not as strong as we would like,” but he added there is growing evidence to show it is possible it could be airborne, particularly in poorly ventilated areas. Did you catch that scientific tentativeness?

ABC also explained the differences between the terms:

  • Airborne – A droplet (a liquid particle expelled from the body through sneezing, coughing, talking, etc.) is “airborne” when it is small enough to travel/float through the air and be inhaled. 
  • Aerosol – An aerosol is a liquid droplet that can be suspended in the air after it is expelled from the body. Droplets that are suspended in the air can become airborne, but they do not all become airborne. 

Science Changes…and That’s Good. 

Science is not static. As new research is performed and as scientific technology progresses, new information is gained that helps inform us about health, the environment, etc. This is why we know smoking is unsafe (This wasn’t always known. Check out this History article, When Cigarette Companies Used Doctors to Push Smoking.). It is also how we know we shouldn’t use whiskey or brandy or any alcohol to soothe a teething baby (The old folk remedies have fallen out of favor. Check out information from CBS, from BabyMed, and from MedlinePlus.) and how we know we should avoid numbing medications for teething (Items with numbing medications present risks. See this article from the National Center for Health Research.). 

This changing nature of science has been magnified during COVID-19 in regards to masks and their effectiveness in preventing the spread of the virus. Peeples (2020) explains how early on in the pandemic, there was a short supply of the N95 respirator masks which were seen as the gold standard in masks to prevent respiratory viruses. If these masks weren’t available to the general public, was it even worth recommending the public wear anything? That was the mindset early on in the pandemic; however, evidence eventually emerged that showed face coverings of any kind were better than nothing. Bai (2020) also explains the changing evidence that led to updated recommendations and expands on how the politics of saving what was deemed to be the only effective prevention method at the beginning of the pandemic (the N95 masks) for those on the front lines as well as U.S. culture and political climate impacted mask recommendations. 

It’s unfortunate, but recommendations for various health issues are made based on more than just scientific evidence. COVID-19 is not the first global health crisis whose response was influenced by culture and politics, and it likely will not be the last. If you want an example of that, check out these resources related to HIV/AIDS in the U.S. (the first two are linked articles, the second two are books you look for at your local library, bookstore, or online): 

This evolving, self-correcting nature of science is why scientists speak in tentative language. These changes often don’t take the spotlight in the news, and they usually occupy brief soundbites if they make it to the news at all. Of course when we’re in a pandemic, every update makes the news.

Context is Key

Clearly contextualizing the news and updates is critical. And while the media do need to accept fault for not always contextualizing news or burying the contextualization low in a part of the article most people don’t read, contextualizing news is also no easy task in the pandemic. Remember as science changes, especially as it’s changing quickly, journalists are scrambling to keep up with the changes. They are reporting on the information available at the time, so when you’re looking at information, take the initiative to be cognizant of updates and publication dates and to seek out information from multiple sources.

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