Time for a re-set in how academics and clinicians discuss COVID science

  • November 28, 2020

One dismaying feature of our public debate about responses to the pandemic is the way that some high-profile academics and clinicians have chosen to make their contributions.  That is, there’s a big problem not with what they have to say, but how they are saying it. I recognize at least three undesirable communication styles:

Adversarial grandstanding

Lancet editor Richard Horton has made no bones about his opinions – he describes the UK’s response as “‘the greatest science policy failure of a generation’.  But whatever his views, did he need to describe the SAGE committee as “The public relations wing of a government that has failed its people”?  Many of the academics on that committee and its working groups are doing the best they can in a fast-moving and unfamiliar world, where they are dealing with a near-impossible set of politicians and their advisers. Under the circumstances the remark by Robin McKie, the reporter sent to cover the puff of Horton’s book about COVID that “Horton can sound strident, even arrogant” seems a little understated.

Horton’s abrasiveness is as nothing compared with Carl Heneghan’s, Professor of Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford, who has said that the government’s scientific advisers “specialise in causing panic and little else”.  Insulting people who disagree with you is no way to conduct a debate about research and its interpretation.

Independent SAGE is a minor variant of this adversarialism –it’s not their message I’m bothered about, it’s the mode of its delivery, where the mechanism is not simply to propose different ideas but to establish a forum defined as oppositional.

Melodrama and shroud waving

The current President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and his predecessor have both used the word tsunami to describe apparent increases in mental health problems during the pandemic. Metaphors are tricky ambiguous things – what is this one supposed to mean? That what’s happening is a highly visible, immediately destructive result of a force of nature? That people with mental health problems represent a threat we should run away from as fast as possible?  Actually, it doesn’t seem to mean much more than – there’s a lot of it about and we ought to be planning a response. 

I’d much rather hear exactly what the problem is, how we know, and exactly what the proposed solution is. By which I don’t mean statements like Professor Neil Ferguson’s flamboyant claim that 20,000 people died because we started the first lockdown a week late. Exact perhaps, with an implicit message about a proposed solution – do what I tell you next time – but rather short on the robustness of the “how we know” element (see later in this piece).

Writing in the journal Lancet Psychiatry in November this year. Psychologist Professor Ellen Townsend says: “…UK residents have all been punished by new limits to the number of people socialising together, and have been warned that further restrictions could be imposed unless their supposedly reckless social behaviour improves.”  Social media have more of this sort of thing – mandated mask-wearing as an abuse of human rights for example. The rhetoric conflates two ideas – it is perfectly possible for something to be punishing (such as a physical training regime or schedule of book signing events) without it being administered as a punishment.

Being economical with the truth.

Since its use by cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong during the Spycatcher hearings “economical with the truth” has been taken to mean “lying” whereas its wider meaning is (as the words suggest) something like – “being strategic about the degree to which truths are revealed.”

REACT-1 is a major study in the UK’s epidemiology of the COVID, and especially during the early months the media pounced on its interim results, presented by Neil Ferguson (again). A fine example was the splash a couple of months ago that across the UK R=1.7, with important implications for numbers of cases that might be expected. The withheld truth here is that REACT-1 is one study of one sample, results modelled by one group, and results should be treated with caution until a better estimate can be obtained by pooling or at least comparing results from all available studies. A non-trivial suggestion, given that – certainly at this time – the estimates from REACT-1 modelling were considerably in excess of those from other groups, as revealed during the press conference which presaged the rationale for our second national lockdown.

Writing in the Spectator Carl Heneghan (again) and a colleague presented the results of a Danish trial evaluating the effect of wearing face masks on the likelihood of the wearer contracting a C-19 infection. The original title “Landmark Danish study shows face masks have no significant effect” proved too much for the journal to defend so it became “Landmark Danish study finds no significant effect for face mask wearers.” The article noted that since the study was an RCT it represented “highest quality scientific evidence” but failed (oddly) to mention that the medical journal in which it was published carried an accompanying editorial explaining why they had accepted a paper describing a study with so many flaws. The study’s estimate of effect was so uncertain that the authors noted that they couldn’t rule out a significant effect on mask wearers infection rates – also not mentioned in the Spectator article. And of course the Danish researchers didn’t look at rates of transmission from mask wearers to others. It’s only by leaving out all these facts that the Spectator article can conclude: “And now that we have properly rigorous scientific research we can rely on, the evidence shows that wearing masks in the community does not significantly reduce the rates of infection.”

Does any of this matter?

Some of this has been noted before. For example, writing in The Conversation on 6 October Danny Dorling deprecated the polarised approach to the specific question of lockdown policy. But does it really matter? Is the style of communication noted here just what’s necessary to get debate about science into a media that is largely scientifically-illiterate?

Public communication about the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic has not been good. The government has led the way with inconsistent messages, untrusted presentation of results aimed at boosting their image rather than telling the truth, and a prime minister whose incoherence and vagueness has ceased (if it ever was) to be amusing. In that context this academic behaviour could be seen as doing no more than adding a little to our woes – making it that much harder to guide the public response to risk.

Unfortunately it goes further than that, as misrepresented science is picked up by those lobbying for a particular viewpoint. It suits the libertarian perspective to present modellers as hopeless, biased academics who present misleading findings to politicians and use them to press for draconian interventions – a pitch that is easier to make when bolstered by hints that perhaps over-confident prediction and error-proneness go together.  

In the longer-term the damage comes from a dogmatic and attention-seeking style that  misrepresents science – when natural uncertainty and healthy debate are portrayed as incompetence and division, there will inevitably be a loss of public confidence in the role of science in policy making.

Much has been made of the re-set in Government that is likely to follow the departure of the poisonous Dominic Cummings. Surely now is the time to re-set the tone of the scientific debate – there are enough thoughtful, articulate academics out there. We need to be pressing for a change in tone by challenging unhelpful communication – not for what is being said but for how. And a research idea: behavioural science hasn’t contributed much to thinking about how we should respond in the pandemic – perhaps research is needed into the impact on behaviour of declining interest in listening to over-confident and over-definite experts, what we might call rhetoric fatigue.

Allan House

E-mail : a.o.house@gmail.com


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