I've been thinking a lot about my profession these last few months. Science writers are gatekeepers of information that the public needs to understand our current events. Yet somehow there still seems to be a lot of confusion about these events. I surmise this from the conversations I've had with neighbors here in Florida, as well as friends who live north near Washington, D.C. and west in California and Colorado. Our understanding seems to be vastly different. I'm trying to understand why.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one understood what we were facing, and that was terrifying. We had models and anecdotes. We had video news footage and word-of-mouth tales about relatives who had died, about healthy young people who had died. But now, halfway through 2020, we have large-scale data. And it is homegrown, which means it should be reliable.
I've looked at the research articles and I've listened to the press conferences. I've also compared the COVID dashboards for my state of Florida, as well as the region where we expect to move this summer: Virginia, Maryland and DC. What disturbs me is that many of the news headlines I see lead with questions and fear, even though the situation appears to be improving. The element of hope, the smallest tone of optimism, is squashed down to the very bottom of the article, where most people are unlikely to read it.
I can see good progress in our country's handling of the pandemic. And admittedly, I'm eager for things to improve! I would like for "normal" life to resume, knowing that it won't be exactly as it was before, but that some changes we decide to keep will actually make like better for everyone -- for example, encouraging telework where it makes sense, allowing children to participate in school at home if they are sick, and just generally following better hygiene and public health practices. Taking more time to stay close to home with family because life passes too quickly, and all of us can expect to die at some point, probably sooner than we would like.
But the news articles tell a different story. One AP article from earlier this week, "US Food Prices See Historic Jump and are Likely to Stay High," grabbed my attention, as it's designed to do. Upon reading the story I was surprised by terms like "soar" and "spike" and "struggle," which heightened the drama. The first quote in the story was attributed to a restaurant owner in a town I've never hear d of in Iowa, posited as an authority on our national food supply and economics, who predicts that prices will stay high for the indefinite future. These choices of quotes, the structure of the story, and the simple word choices all offer insight about the bias of the reporter.
Not until halfway through the story did I find the real numbers: fruit and vegetable prices increased by 1.5% and the highest jump was in the category of meat, poultry and eggs, which jumped 4.3%. But the numbers were not offered with any context. So what is a 4.3% jump in the price of a steak? If it's a $20 cut of beef, that increase is $0.86. Twenty dollars is pretty pricey for a steak, so we can assume that item would feed at least 2 people, but if it's hamburger, it could be enough to feed a family of 4 or 5. And the meal would cost $0.86 more, hardly an emergency. (And just as an aside, our nation eats too much red meat anyway, so maybe this will be an impetus for us to cut back a little on beef.)
Other stories reported by a high-profile science writer for a high-profile magazine emphasize anecdotes: the "long-haulers" who happen to be young, healthy people that have never been tested for active COVID infections or for antibodies, but assume they have the virus and that it's lasting for months. Headline indicates that "thousands" have been struggling with COVID-19 for months and are being ignored by their doctors.
What does "thousands" represent in this situation? Well, if it's a group of 9,999 people in the United States (assuming it's less than 10,000 because he would have said "tens of thousands" if it were, and he's actually referring to groups in Europe, as well) and we know that 2 million people just in the US have tested positive for the virus (not including antibody tests), then the category represents 0.49 percent. So, we can infer that approximately one in every 200 people infected by the virus could potentially be a "long hauler." But that's an overestimate because we know many more people have had COVID than have tested for it. And most of the people he interviewed in his story had not been tested for COVID-19, or else their test results came back negative.
Let's put the numbers in a different context: You lifetime chances of being killed by cancer? 1 in 6. Heart disease? 1 in 7. Killed in a car crash is rarer...1 in 106. But because COVID-19 antibody tests show that seroprevalence is about ten times higher than the positive viral tests, I suspect the chance of becoming a "long hauler" is probably in the same range as drowning, which happens to be 1 in 1,121.
Is it helpful for me to put the numbers in context this way? Maybe not, because our risk of dying from any of these causes always depends on our exposure. So we make choices to modify our risk based on our fear. Some people never learn to swim. Some never learn to drive. Others participate in these activities understanding they carry risks, but the freedom and pleasure gained make that risk worthwhile.
It is the same with COVID-19. We know which groups have the highest risk, and we know how to protect them while re-opening our society. And one month into the process, the numbers in opening states still look very good! But the fearful and dramatic headlines continue to fill our screens.
So why are the science stories so full of fear? I had an epiphany last night as I wrote a draft speech for a friend. Writing is a form a therapy. For me, it's a way to understand issues that seem frightening or confusing. While I attempt to "tell the story" to my audience, I am also sharing the story with myself in that process. So I suspect the same is happening for many science writers who cover the COVID-19 pandemic. They are afraid, and they choose their sources, their adjectives, the structure of their stories in a way that reflects their fear.
Do their readers understand this? Readers struggle with several components of science and health literacy, including understanding big numbers and the importance of anecdotes. We are greatly influenced by personal stories, far more than abstract statistics. If someone's 35-year-old triathlete neighbor dies of COVID-19, naturally we adjust our perception of risk simply because we know someone who knows someone who had a terrible outcome. If your nephew drowns at a community pool, you might reconsider your seasonal membership at that same pool next summer.
Science writers understand the power of the anecdote. In fact, most of us will look for a person who can help "humanize" some principle of research that forms the basis for our story. People connect with other people's stories moreso than with data. Is it wrong for us to manipulate our readers in this way? I don't think so. The alternative would be to write something with a sterile tone, akin to a research article suitable for a journal.
No, we have an obligation to tell stories that matter to us, and to tell these stories in a way helps our audience understand and connect with our meaning. We can do this because we have the right to free speech. The craft of storytelling requires us to make choices about what to include and what to leave out, what to present first and what to present last, etc. It is impossible for us to separate ourselves from our bias, despite our best intentions to tell fair and balanced stories. We are humans, not robots.
So should we add some sort of "disclaimer" to our stories, allowing readers to more easily identify our biases so they can understand the limitations? I fear this would be too challenging, particularly because we may not even be aware of our personal biases.
Instead, I think the solution is to cultivate an audience of smarter readers. We need to show them our bag of tricks, the various ways we weave a story that is designed to inform, to influence, to instill emotion. Are students learning this in school, even as they learn to write? I will think on this more in the coming months and reach out to my friends in education and writing circles to gather their help. I want to be part of a solution.
We are living in strange times. So much is changing from one day to the next. I try to remind myself each day that change is always scary, and it is always painful, even when it is good. I am an optimist by nature. I always have been. To me this is one of my better qualities, a tool of resilience, my most valued survival skill. Our great country was founded by a rag-tag group of optimists who went up against a giant, determined to fight for their freedom or die in the process. They did not cower in shelters and accept a bleak future. They were determined to create a better one.
And this brings me back to the question in my post title: Why do I write? I write to answer my own questions about the world. My stories do not represent final answers, they are merely the chronicle of my journey.
Why do I write about science? Because I believe science poses the most hope for our society. It represents a tool -- the scientific method -- we can use to understand questions and develop objective measures of truth (with the understanding that this picture of "truth" continues to evolve over time as more data are added to it) for just about everything in our universe, from the soil to the salamander to the stars. The scientific method frees us from superstition and fear.
Science also reminds us of how little we understand. There are so many things in our world, beautiful wondrous things, that we can continue to explore. New and uncharted territories. Previously unappreciated connections and patterns. Writing about science continually reminds me of how small I am and how little I understand and appreciate about the universe that surrounds me. I write about science for children because I believe they need to see this, to understand the role they might play in discovery and understanding. And I believe they deserve a world that is still full of freedom and hope.
Photo and text copyright held by Brittany Moya del Pino, all rights reserved. (2020)
I write about curious phenomena around us. I also write about people who are passionate about their careers, hobbies, or life experiences related to science. This blog chronicles my journey.
©Brittany Moya del Pino 2020. All rights reserved.