In this novel crisis, we in media and online need to shift much of our attention away from trying to eradicate disinformation (and how’s that going?) to spend more of our time and resources once again finding and amplifying good information — authoritative information from experts.
That is why I am maintaining and immersing myself in my COVID Twitter list of 500 epidemiologists, virologists, physicians, researchers, NGOs, and selected specialist journalists. I have been taking in their conversations with each other and the public, learning every hour, privileged to be able to ask questions, witnessing science in action; it’s that and only that that gives me hope. Through those experts I get a better view of our new reality versus any bro’s contrarian thumbsucking in blog posts or New York Times columns or in mindless TV location shots in front of poke bars that — guess what? — have no business. More on all that in a minute.
Of course, I’m not suggesting an end to fact-checking and fighting disinformation. First Draft, Storyful, fact-checkers worldwide, and news organizations aplenty have that well in hand, or as well as anyone can these days. But the flavor of disinformation has changed; the target has shifted; the enemy is different. As First Draft’s founder and my leader in all such things, Dr. Claire Wardle, said in a video conference with journalists the other day, much disinformation these days comes not from malicious actors but from the well-meaning ignorant. Ignorance is our foe.
That is why we need the experts. That is why we need to put our effort behind finding them, listening to them, learning from them, and amplifying what they have to say. That is media’s job № 1.
Cable TV news is doing a decent job, I think, of getting experts on air to answer questions — authorities such as Dr. Caitlin Rivers, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Peter Hotez, professor at Baylor; Dr. Ashish Jha of Harvard; Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel of Penn; Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness; Andy Slavitt, former Obama ACA head. My primary complaint is that, TV being TV, they fill too much time with meaningless, repetitive location shots, coming back to an empty deli or Times Square a dozen times in a day or standing in front of the soon-to-be mass hospital at Javits Center where there’s no reporting to be done. Stop.
I want to see that time filled instead with more voices of science. I want to see TV do what it does best: make stars, stars of experts, scientists, doctors — the people we should trust and listen to, not pontificators or certain politicians at podiums. I can recommend many more scientists from my list. Here are some examples:
Devi Sridhar, chair of global health at the University of Edinburgh, has been a brilliant and outspoken critic of UK policy who can explain anything in the crisis with crystal clarity. Watch her from two years ago predicting precisely predict what we are now enduring:
Here is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a lead researcher on the NIH effort to create a vaccine and an excellent explainer on Twitter.
Also from the UK (which I recommend because we need international perspectives) here is scientist Mike Galsworthy explaining with concise clarity and a simple notebook why Boris Johnson’s herd immunity strategy was dead wrong.
And more experts with amazing credentials and a talent for explanation:
- Yale’s Dr. Gregg Gonsalves is fantastic on Twitter — blunt and informative (you’ll hear more from him in a moment);
- Dr. Marc Lipsitch, a highly respected epidemiologist at Harvard;
- Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University;
- Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia;
- Dr. Florian Krammer of Mt. Sinai, who has delighted scientists with his work on COVID-19 serology (which can lead to a test to see who is over the disease);
- Dr. Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist who is super at making graphic explainers of virology;
- Dr. Jeremy Faust of Harvard and now publisher of an authoritative COVID newsletter, Brief19;
- Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet;
- Dr. Christian Drosten, a German virologist who is having considerable influence on policy there (here’s an excellent interview with him);
- Dr. Saskia Popescu, who has a PhD in biodefense;
- Dr. Muge Cevik, a virology clinician and researcher at the University of St. Andrews;
- Adam Kucharski, author of The Rules of Contagion;
- Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard prof now writing in The Atlantic;
- Dr. Celine Gounder, an NYU prof and cohost of the Epidemic Podcast on with Biden advisor Ronald Klain;
- Dr. Howard Forman, radiologist and former Senate staff;
- Dr. Emma Hodcroft, doing amazing work in tracking the various strains of the disease and how they have spread, in collaboration with scientists around the world ;
- Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at Harvard;
- Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, who specializes in pandemic preparedness;
- Kai Kupferschmidt, a science journalist who has been good on the topic;
- Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown;
- Lisa Jarvis (no relation), a reporter at Chemical and Engineering News;
- Dr. Rob Davidson is the frontline ER physician who challenged Vice-President Pence and who gives us messages, exhausted, after his shifts.
They are all sharing directly with us on Twitter; what a privilege to be able to read them. That is but a small sample of the 500 experts I follow. You could follow each of them or better yet subscribe to my list (I get nothing out of it but the knowledge that you’ll help spread good information). Twitter, to its credit, decided they wanted to expedite verification (that is, the anointing of checkmarks) of these experts and so they came to me for help and I’ve been trying to guide some of them through the process, still ongoing.
One caution: What passes in tweet-length conversation in the midst of a constantly changing situation is science in progress. That is to say, there are no answers and conclusions, but there is information and data, and there are important questions. And that would be OK for most people. But Trump. I retweeted a report of very incomplete information about one doctor’s experience giving a few patients a malaria drug and antibiotic — worth looking at, the doctors in my feed said; no more. Then Trump trumpeted this as practically a cure, causing doctors to scream and a run on the medicine. I was properly castigated by someone on Twitter for tweeting such a small study and he was right to the extent that I should have added the context that it was small and nowhere near conclusive. You might wish for the days of gatekeepers — reporters — to add that context, but we’re leaving that era. I welcome hearing so much information directly from so many experts and practitioners. In this age of more open information, the public will have to learn to deal with incomplete data. You might call what’s needed media literacy, except media often do an idiotic job of reporting the progress of science (“Wine will kill us!” “Wine will save us!”). I call the solution simply education.
Now let us compare and contrast how certain media have dealt with — that is, spread or ignored — expertise. Some media have been wonderful. The Atlantic immediately put its excellent COVID coverage — for example this well-documented policy proposal from two renowned doctors and an ongoing project tracking how many Americans have the disease — outside its paywall. Some followed the example, making COVID coverage free; some haven’t. For God’s sake, if there were ever a moment when journalists should see reporting as a public good, if there were ever a moment when we should do everything we can to eradicate ignorance so we help eradicate this threat, this is it! Before you start poor-mouthing about tough times — which we all now share — know that it was The Atlantic’s decision to go outside its paywall that motivated me to subscribe. Sometimes doing good is its own reward; sometimes, there’s a bonus.
I also want to single out Medium for praise. As a platform, it does not choose what is posted there. Among the God-knows-how-many posts that went up recently was an absolutely awful festival in willful ignorance and hubris from a so-called growth hacker who thought he could do better with epidemiological data than untold experts around the world. To quote:
I’m quite experienced at understanding virality, how things grow, and data. In my vocation, I’m most known for popularizing the “growth hacking movement” in Silicon Valley that specializes in driving rapid and viral adoption of technology products. Data is data. Our focus here isn’t treatments but numbers. You don’t need a special degree to understand what the data says and doesn’t say. Numbers are universal.
Scores of experts in my Twitter list went properly berserk over his conclusions, — a biology professor at the University of Washington, Dr. Carl Bergstrom, decrying every paragraph. It spread for a time via Fox News fools and others. (I could insert a rant here about Fox News and Rupert Murdoch killing people and democracy, but let’s just stipulate that for the time being.)
But then Medium took the piece down.
UPDATE: Medium released this statement about the takedown:
“We’re giving careful scrutiny to coronavirus-related content on Medium to help stem misinformation that could be detrimental to public safety. The post was removed based on its violation of our Rules, specifically the risk analysis framework we use for ‘Controversial, Suspect, and Extreme Content.’ We’ve clarified these rules to address more specific concerns around the evolving public health crisis. We’ve also taken steps to point readers to credible, fact-checked pieces on Medium and elsewhere on the web, and to remind readers that Medium is an open platform where anyone can write. We’re assessing the situation daily and making adjustments as necessary.”
Bravo for Medium. Yes, I wish Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al would do likewise. The differences are clear: Medium is a platform for content while social media provide platforms for conversation; social media carries exponentially more items to monitor. Facebook says, and I agree, that it would make a bad arbiter of truth. Fine. But I do want to see especially Facebook grow a spine and decide what does and does not fit in the community it has built. Denying informed science and endangering lives belongs in no community. Besides tamping down the bad, I also want to see Facebook, like Twitter, do everything possible to amplify science and sense.
Yes, there are idiots out there and idiots who believe idiots and who don’t want to believe science. But we will go mad trying to save them all from their ignorance; we are too busy to focus on them. I say we must concentrate now on those willing, wishing, and needing to learn, which I firmly believe is most of us. We do that by helping them pay attention to science and facts and helping them ignore the idiots.
You’d think that concentrating on the evidence produced by experts would be easy at a publication still controlled by editors, as opposed to a technology platform. But I cannot understand why The New York Times is publishing some of what it has published lately, fully in its control.
Take, for example, this op-ed by David Katz, which like the post Medium took down takes a contrarian position that this pandemic really isn’t as bad as it seems, implying we are overreacting. Once again, countless experts in my Twitter list went nuts over this. They were particularly amazed that The Times chose to give over its precious space and its invaluable distribution and imprimatur not to an epidemiologist or a virologist but to someone who is well-known for defending sugar and acting as a California walnut ambassador and creating a discredited nutrition rating system (all of which The Times could have found, as I did, in a simple Google search). Could The Times have found no one more knowledgeable about the disease? I could suggest 500 people. Here Yale’s Dr. Gregg Gonsalves takes it apart:
So right. In choosing that author and that op-ed and passing on others who know so much more, The Times is — I’ll repeat Gonsalves’ words —exercising “denigration of expertise, when we need it most, prizing generalist knowledge when specifics matter.”
And it gets worse with — surprise, surprise — Bret Stephens, who took the same contrarian path, questioning the experts and their “models” — yes, he put “models” in scare quotes. He based his arguments in great measure on a piece by John P.A. Ioannidis — which I had already seen the expert doctors in my Twitter list excoriate. Here is a very polite takedown of Ioannidis’ theories by Harvard’s Dr. Marc Lipsitch, who concludes: “Waiting and hoping for a miracle as health systems are overrun by Covid-19 is not an option. For the short term there is no choice but to use the time we are buying with social distancing to mobilize a massive political, economic, and societal effort to find new ways to cope with this virus.”
And then there is Tom Friedman’s latest column, in which he echoes the challenges of the contrarians: “Is this cure — even for a short while — worse than the disease?’’ He all but gives the back of his hand to the epidemiologists who are informing policy, calling what they offer — with scare quotes — “group think.” Good Lord. Theirs is not the opinion of a goddamned coffee klatch. It’s science, based on data and experience — which is more than any columnist has. Friedman hides behind the classic excuse of the journalist: “I am not a medical expert. I’m just a reporter.” Translated: We’re supposed to ask dumb questions — just questions — on behalf of the dumb public. No! Our job is to go to the experts to help make the public smarter. Amazingly, Friedman goes on to favorably quote both Katz and Ioannidis from The New York Times. Talk about an echo chamber! Talk about “group think”!
Gonsalves tweeted again, about this Times hat trick, and I must quote it all:
Expertise. We will live or die by expertise: by science, by evidence, by experience, by knowledge, by data. Hot takes will kill us, whether they are Donald Trump’s (‘I have a good feeling about the drug’) or a tech bro’s (‘I know data’) or New York Times’ columnists’ with their scare quotes (‘are “group think” and “models” good? we’re just asking’).
In journalism, we are never experts. It is our job to find experts and give them voice for the public, adding questions and context where helpful. But thank goodness, I don’t need the journalists to stand in the way. I can go straight to 500 amazing, brave, brilliant, experienced, knowledgeable, dedicated, and caring experts thanks to the internet.
Thank you, doctors.