- Misinformation about COVID-19, particularly regarding its risk to the public, leads to greater uncertainty and fear;
- In contrast, scientific findings and projections about the disease, however frightening, at least shine some light into the perilous shadows;
- The world needs more scientists who want to translate their expertise into effective communication on global concerns and anxieties to cut through the noise of fear and assumptions based on the unknown.
As the world experiences the cascading effects of a new pandemic, people everywhere are afraid. Almost every aspect of modern life has been dramatically disrupted by the disease COVID-19, including health, finance, education, transportation and community. Running through all of this is a fear of the unknown. This fear creates an emotional state of anxiety about a lack of knowledge, and thus control, over the situation and uncertainty about the present and future threats.
Much of this uncertainty relates to the nature of a novel pathogen, especially a potentially fatal coronavirus with unprecedented person-to-person transmission. Nobody has previous experience with it, immunologically or otherwise, and there’s still much to learn about its wildlife origins and disease dynamics. Emerging without any human history or even a name, the global introduction of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) might seem to many like the opening of an epic horror film.
However, a great deal of the uncertainty about COVID-19 is linked to the misinformation that is circulating about it – particularly misrepresentations of risk to the public, who react more fearfully when kept from the facts. Positive outlooks have disturbing effects when they run counter to reason, truth and evidence, and combined with disingenuity and inconsistency, they’re utterly terrifying.
In contrast, scientific findings and projections about the disease, however frightening, at least shine some light into the perilous shadows. Thanks to a steady stream of open data via pre-prints, expedited publications and online repositories, all kinds of research resources and products are widely and freely available for consumption These include hundreds of SARS-C0V-2 genomes to design and evaluate diagnostic tests, epidemiological data to guide Covid-19 surveillance and public health decision-making, and user-friendly tools to visualize and track Covid-19 cases in real-time.
The scientific journals and institutions that support this process are trusted sources of information. Yet direct communication from the scientists themselves is an essential ingredient for a better-informed populace. With interviews, op-eds, podcasts, blogs and social media, scientists are uniquely positioned to lead people out of the darkness and empower them with facts.
The illuminative function of science defines its essential role in society, described beautifully by Carl Sagan in his many works. As an instrument of knowledge, science also has a secondary function as an antidote for fear. “For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror,” Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. “Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get a hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course.”
Writing at a time when many Americans believed that they were at risk of alien abduction, Sagan saw an urgent need for science – and scientists – to play a much larger role in public education and discourse. The situation is even more serious today. During a public health emergency, anxiety is, of course, an entirely rational reaction to the fear of unknown threats. However, fear is also a potentially dangerous driver of behaviours that can prolong or hasten the spread of disease.
At this alarming moment, an excellent example of the reassuring powers of a public-facing scientist is Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984. After more than three decades leading the US government’s scientific research and response to pandemic threats, he provides the expertise and credibility that necessitates visibility during times of crisis. While some recommendations to curtail panic about COVID-19 are focused on terminology and tone, his characteristic bluntness commands universal respect.
Fauci elicits confidence in his work, even when speaking candidly about current failures of COVID-19 detection or about past challenges of the AIDS pandemic. There are clear parallels in the US’ federal responses to these crises despite almost 40 years between them. In the early 1980s “it felt like we were swimming in the dark”, he says about HIV scientists in Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World, an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Being the target of activists demanding more government action, Fauci describes going alone to a gay and lesbian community meeting in Greenwich Village: “I saw the frustration and anger, and the underlying terror for their lives.” No doubt these experiences helped shape the model of a scientist who understands and appreciates the broader social impacts of the scientific enterprise. To this day, he continues to engage with the public, in all sorts of settings and on their terms.
The world needs more scientists who want to translate their expertise into effective communication on global concerns and anxieties. The Young Scientists (YS) of the World Economic Forum apply this model across an enormous diversity of disciplines and problems, taking advantage of communication opportunities – presentations, meetings, workshops and conversations, as well as a variety of media platforms – to develop languages and approaches for different audiences and interests.
As we confront each new challenge, whether it’s a pandemic or some other globally destabilizing force, these skills are supremely important to help us guide with science the leaders of business, technology and governance. Their fears of the unknown are no different from those of the general public and voices from the YS community may help to cut through the noise. The fewer people in the dark, the better off everyone will be. We’re all in this together.