The pandemic has Americans thinking about science - GulfToday

The pandemic has Americans thinking about science

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Dr Nita Patel, Director of Antibody discovery and Vaccine development, lifts a vial with a potential COVID-19 vaccine at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Agence France-Presse

Tom Avril, Tribune News Service

The world is grappling with a deadly threat, though its seriousness has been downplayed by the president and proposed solutions are rejected by those who insist that the economy will suffer. Yet more and more people say they accept the science underlying the threat.

The coronavirus? No, climate change.

Public understanding of science may seem weak these days, with social media full of unproven claims about various COVID-19 treatments, and bizarre ideas such as the pandemic being linked to 5G radiation from cellphone towers.

But from their experience with other politicised scientific topics such as climate change, experts in science communication and the psychology of persuasion say it is possible to make inroads with those who resist evidence and expertise. Difficult, but possible.

The solution includes careful, patient explanations, delivered respectfully. That’s crucial, whether you’re talking to a family member or presiding over a news conference. An attitude of “just trust us, we’re the experts” is no good.

“Invite the audience to share in the act of looking at the evidence,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Polls indicate most Americans now accept that human activity has caused an increase in average global temperatures, a process that has unfolded over decades. Shouldn’t it be easier to build public appreciation for science during a pandemic that is striking down people in just days?

Many have called for a “Sputnik moment” type of urgency, evoking the Soviet satellite launch in 1957 that galvanized US investment in research and education. And there is no question that scientists have responded, studying the biology and possible treatments at a head-spinning pace. The Russians have even named their vaccine after the satellite.

But for a variety of reasons, the public-appreciation part of the equation has not gone so well, and that has stood in the way of what everyone wants: to get back to normal. The remedy, science educators say, might need to start as early as elementary school.

On July 16, four months after President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency, Anthony Fauci made an admission that the general public does not normally associate with scientists.

He said he was wrong.

The topic was masks. The US government’s initial advice was not to bother with the face coverings, because the real risk of airborne transmission was believed to be in hospitals, not out in the world, explained Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 and a pioneer in studying HIV.

But evidence emerged that infected people who had no symptoms were spreading the virus, just by singing, shouting, even ordinary conversation. So cloth masks made sense for everyday use, Fauci said in an NBC interview with Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg.

“As the information changes, then you have to be flexible enough and humble enough to be able to change how you think about things,” he said.

That’s how science works: When new evidence emerges, new conclusions may follow. But the unfortunate takeaway by some was that Fauci was not to be trusted, said Penn’s Jamieson. “We shouldn’t be saying, ‘Scientists, you were wrong,’” she said. “We should be saying, ‘I’m glad the scientists have new knowledge.’”

What’s different with COVID-19 is that the process is happening in an unusually public and accelerated fashion, said Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

In her previous job at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Reid helped decipher the genetic code of a virus that caused a different pandemic: the 1918 flu. It took seven years.

With modern technology, the genome of the coronavirus was pieced together within days. The rest of the discovery process has been compressed, too: the publication of results, the reviews by academic societies, the transition from basic research to the development of treatments. It is bound to seem messy. Schools must teach students to weigh the body of evidence, rather than throwing up their hands and declaring they don’t know what to do with conflicting studies.

“I don’t really care that students remember the details of Linnaean classification,” she said, referring to how living things are sorted into species. “I want them to be able to think like a scientist.”

Jamieson attributes the success in communicating the climate-change message to more Americans — Gallup finds nearly 70% agreement that human activity is causing temperature rise — to three factors:

“The evidence has become clearer. The communication has become more effective. And people have experienced events in their lives that they attribute to climate change,” she said. “That suggests this isn’t a hopeless task.”

Jon A. Krosnick, director of the Political Psychology Research at Stanford University, is not so sure. In his own surveys, conducted with the think tank Resources for the Future, public acceptance of climate-change science, though high, has not changed in years. What’s changed is that more people say they know something about the issue and have become more sure of their opinions.

And according to decades of psychology research, people who are paying close attention to a topic can be harder to persuade, he said. Intelligence has little to do with it. People may cling to an unscientific view because it is tied up with their very identity, leading them to dismiss contrary evidence.

For years, the medical establishment held on to the idea that ulcers and stomach inflammation were caused by stress, rejecting a theory from two Australian scientists that a type of bacterium was the culprit. One even drank a culture of the bacterium, soon suffering the telltale symptoms. In 2005, they won the Nobel Prize.

These days, the division is internal. Science is increasingly politicised, where even the motives of a pioneering researcher such as Fauci are called into question. Effective public-health communication depends on clear, uniform messaging, yet too often, Americans get the opposite.

President Trump has called for less COVID-19 testing, when global authorities insist that more is needed. He has been dismissive of masks. Without any evidence, he claimed that one potential treatment was being delayed by people at the Food and Drug Administration who didn’t want him to be re-elected Nov. 3.

Trump has vowed that a vaccine will be produced “before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”

Everyone wants a vaccine quickly — if it is safe and effective. But vaccines normally are tested for years, and even optimistic scientists say 2021 is a likelier timetable. The Trump administration has told states to be ready for distributing a vaccine by Nov. 1 — two days before the election.

The rush, critics warn, may only fan the flames of another kind of science doubt in the United States: distrust of vaccines. And if the rushed vaccines don’t work, or worse yet, prove harmful, public confidence in the most successful medical intervention in human history could be at risk.

Instead of a Sputnik moment, that would be a crash landing.

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