I feel a lot of non-science editors just switch off when they read science stuff.
A friend told me this earlier today, during yet another conversation about how many of the editorial issues that assail science and health journalism have become more pronounced during the pandemic (by dint of the pandemic being a science and health ‘event’). Even earlier, editors would switch off whenever they’d read science news, but then the news would usually be about a new study discussing something coffee could or couldn’t do to the heart.
While that’s worrying, the news was seldom immediately harmful, and lethal even more rarely. In a pandemic, on the other hand, bullshit that makes it to print hurts in two distinct ways: by making things harder for good health journalists to get through to readers with the right information and emphases, and of course by encouraging readers to do things that might harm them.
But does this mean editors need to know the ins and outs of the subject on which they’re publishing articles? This might seem like a silly question to ask but it’s often the reality in small newsrooms in India, where one editor is typically in charge of three or four beats at a time. And setting aside the argument that this arrangement is a product of complacency and not taking science news seriously more than resource constraints, it’s not necessarily a bad thing either.
For example, a political editor may not be able to publish incisive articles on, say, developments in the art world, but they could still help by identifying reliable news sources and tap their network to commission the right reporters. And if the organisation spends a lot more time covering political news, and with more depth, this arrangement is arguably preferable from a business standpoint.
Of course, such a setup is bound to be error-prone, but my contention is that it doesn’t deserve to be written off either, especially this year – when more than a few news publishers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a pandemic even as they couldn’t hire a health editor because their revenues were on the decline.
For their part, then, publishers can help minimise errors by being clear about what editors are expected to do. For example, a newsroom can’t possibly do a great job of covering science developments in the country without a science editor; axiomatically, non-science editors can only be expected to do a superficial job of standing in for a science editor.
This said, the question still stands: What are editors to do specifically, especially those suddenly faced with the need to cover a topic they’re only superficially familiar with? The answer to this question is important not just to help editors but also to maintain accountability. For example, though I’ve seldom covered health stories in the past, I also don’t get to throw my hands up as The Wire‘s science, health and environment editor when I publish a faulty story about, say, COVID-19. It is a bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, but it’s not entirely unfair either: it’s the pandemic, and The Wire can’t not cover it!
In these circumstances, I’ve found one particular way to mitigate the risk of damnation, so to speak, quite effective. I recently edited an article in which the language of a paragraph seemed off to me because it wasn’t clear what the author was trying to say, and I kept pushing him to clarify. Finally, after 14 emails, we realised he had made a mistake in the calculations, and we dropped that part of the article. More broadly, I’ve found that nine times out of ten, even pushbacks on editorial grounds can help identify and resolve technical issues. If I think the underlying argument has not been explained clearly enough, I send a submission back even if it is scientifically accurate or whatever.
Now, I’m not sure how robust this relationship is in the larger scheme of things. For example, this ‘mechanism’ will obviously fail when clarity of articulation and soundness of argument are not related, such as in the case of authors for whom English is a second language. For another, the omnipresent – and omnipotent – confounding factor known as unknown unknowns could keep me from understanding an argument even when it is well-made, thus putting me at risk of turning down good articles simply because I’m too dense or ignorant.
But to be honest, these risks are quite affordable when the choice is between damnation for an article I can explain and damnation for an article I can’t. I can (and do) improve the filter’s specificity/sensitivity 😄 by reading widely myself, to become less ignorant, and by asking authors to include a brief of 100-150 words in their emails clarifying, among other things, their article’s intended effect on the reader. And fortuitously, when authors are pushed to be clearer about the point they’re making, it seems they also tend to reflect on the parts of their reasoning that lie beyond the language itself.
Say you need to store a square image 1,000 pixels wide to a side with the smallest filesize (setting aside compression techniques). The image begins with the colour #009900 on the left side and, as you move towards the right, gradually blends into #1e1e1e on the rightmost edge. Two simple storage methods come to mind: you could either encode the colour-information of every pixel in a file and store that file, or you could determine a mathematical function that, given the inputs #009900 and #1e1e1e, generates the image in question.
The latter method seems more appealing, especially for larger canvases of patterns that are composed by a single underlying function. In such cases, it should obviously be more advantageous to store the image as an output of a function to achieve the smallest filesize.
Now, in information theory (as in thermodynamics), there is an entity called entropy: it describes the amount of information you don’t have about a system. In our example, imagine that the colour #009900 blends to #1e1e1e from left to right save for a strip along the right edge, say, 50 pixels wide. Each pixel in this strip can assume a random colour. To store this image, you’d have to save it as an addition of two functions: ƒ(x, y), where x = #009900 and y = #1e1e1e, plus one function to colour the pixels lying in the 50-px strip on the right side. Obviously this will increase the filesize of the stored function.
Even more, imagine if you were told that 200,000 pixels out of the 1,000,000 pixels in the image would assume random colours. The underlying function becomes even more clumsy: an addition of ƒ(x, y) and a function R that randomly selects 200,000 pixels and then randomly colours them. The outputs of this function R stands for the information about the image that you can’t have beforehand; the more such information you lack, the more entropy the image is said to have.
The example of the image was simple but sufficiently illustrative. In thermodynamics, entropy is similar to randomness vis-à-vis information: it’s the amount of thermal energy a system contains that can’t be used to perform work. From the point of view of work, it’s useless thermal energy (including heat) – something that can’t contribute to moving a turbine blade, powering a motor or motivating a system of pulleys to lift weights. Instead, it is thermal energy motivated by and directed at other impetuses.
As it happens, this picture could help clarify, or at least make more sense of, a contemporary situation in science journalism. Earlier this week, health journalist Priyanka Pulla discovered that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had published a press release last month, about the serological testing kit the government had developed, with the wrong specificity and sensitivity data. Two individuals she spoke to, one from ICMR and another from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, which actually developed the kit, admitted the mistake when she contacted them. Until then, neither organisation had issued a clarification even though it was clear both individuals are likely to have known of the mistake at the time the release was published.
Assuming for a moment that this mistake was an accident (my current epistemic state is ‘don’t know’), it would indicate ICMR has been inefficient in the performance of its duties, forcing journalists to respond to it in some way instead of focusing on other, more important matters.
The reason I’m tending to think of such work as entropy and not work per se is such instances, whereby journalists are forced to respond to an event or action characterised by the existence of trivial resolutions, seem to be becoming more common.
It’s of course easier to argue that what I consider trivial may be nontrivial to someone else, and that these events and actions matter to a greater extent than I’m willing to acknowledge. However, I’m personally unable to see beyond the fact that an organisation with the resources and, currently, the importance of ICMR shouldn’t have had a hard time proof-reading a press release that was going to land in the inboxes of hundreds of journalists. The consequences of the mistake are nontrivial but the solution is quite trivial.
(There is another feature in some cases: of the absence of official backing or endorsement of any kind.)
So as such, it required work on the part of journalists that could easily have been spared, allowing journalists to direct their efforts at more meaningful, more productive endeavours. Here are four more examples of such events/actions, wherein the non-triviality is significantly and characteristically lower than that attached to formal announcements, policies, reports, etc.:
Withholding data in papers – In the most recent example, ICMR researchers published the results of a seroprevalence survey of 26,000 people in 65 districts around India, and concluded that the prevalence of the novel coronavirus was 0.73% in this population. However, in their paper, the researchers include neither a district-wise breakdown of the data nor the confidence intervals for each available data-point even though they had this information (it’s impossible to compute the results the researchers did without these details). As a result, it’s hard for journalists to determine how reliable the results are, and whether they really support the official policies regarding epidemic-control interventions that will soon follow.
Publishing faff – On June 2, two senior members of the Directorate General of Health services, within India’s Union health ministry, published a paper (in a journal they edited) that, by all counts, made nonsensical claims about India’s COVID-19 epidemic becoming “extinguished” sometime in September 2020. Either the pair of authors wasn’t aware of their collective irresponsibility or they intended to refocus (putting it benevolently) the attention of various people towards their work, turning them away from the duo deemed embarrassing or whatever. And either way, the claims in the paper wound their way into two news syndication services, PTI and IANS, and eventually onto the pages of a dozen widely-read news publications in the country. In effect, there were two levels of irresponsibility at play: one as embodied by the paper and the other, by the syndication services’ and final publishers’ lack of due diligence.
Making BS announcements – This one is fairly common: a minister or senior party official will say something silly, such as that ancient Indians invented the internet, and ride the waves of polarising debate, rapidly devolving into acrimonious flamewars on Twitter, that follow. I recently read (in The Washington Post I think, but I can’t find the link now) that it might be worthwhile for journalists to try and spend less time on fact-checking a claim than it took someone to come up with that claim. Obviously there’s no easy way to measure the time some claims took to mature into their present forms, but even so, I’m sure most journalists would agree that fact-checking often takes much longer than bullshitting (and then broadcasting). But what makes this enterprise even more grating is that it is orders of magnitude easier to not spew bullshit in the first place.
Conspiracy theories – This is the most frustrating example of the lot because, today, many of the originators of conspiracy theories are television journalists, especially those backed by government support or vice versa. While fully acknowledging the deep-seated issues underlying both media independence and the politics-business-media nexus, numerous pronouncements by so many news anchors have only been akin to shooting ourselves in the foot. Exhibit A: shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the start of demonetisation, a beaming news anchor told her viewers that the new 2,000-rupee notes would be embedded with chips to transmit the notes’ location real-time, via satellite, to operators in Delhi.
Perhaps this entropy – i.e. the amount of journalistic work not available to deal with more important stories – is not only the result of a mischievous actor attempting to keep journalists, and the people who read those journalists, distracted but is also assisted by the manifestation of a whole industry’s inability to cope with the mechanisms of a new political order.
Science journalism itself has already experienced a symptom of this change when pseudoscientific ideas became more mainstream, even entering the discourse of conservative political groups, including that of the BJP. In a previous era, if a minister said something, a reporter was to drum up a short piece whose entire purpose was to record “this happened”. And such reports were the norm and in fact one of the purported roots of many journalistic establishments’ claims to objectivity, an attribute they found not just desirable but entirely virtuous: those who couldn’t be objective were derided as sub-par.
However, if a reporter were to simply report today that a minister said something, she places herself at risk of amplifying bullshit to a large audience if what the minister said was “bullshit bullshit bullshit”. So just as politicians’ willingness to indulge in populism and majoritarianism to the detriment of society and its people has changed, so also must science journalism change – as it already has with many publications, especially in the west – to ensure each news report fact-checks a claim it contains, especially if it is pseudoscientific.
In the same vein, it’s not hard to imagine that journalists are often forced to scatter by the compulsions of an older way of doing journalism, and that they should regroup on the foundations of a new agreement that lets them ignore some events so that they can better dedicate themselves to the coverage of others.
There is a famous comedy scene in Tamil cinema, starring the actors Vadivelu and ‘Bonda’ Mani. Those who understand Tamil should skip this awkward retelling – intended for non-Tamil speakers, to the video below and the post after. Vadivelu has blood all over his face due to an injury when ‘Bonda’ Mani walks up to him and asks why he’s got tomato chutney all over his face. Vadivelu looks stunned, and punches ‘Bonda’ Mani on the nose. Mani reaches a finger to his nose to find blood and cries out that he’s bleeding. Then Vadivelu asks, “If I have red stuff on my face it’s tomato chutney, but on your face it’s blood, eh?”
It would seem Vadivelu spoke what he did for many millions of us today wondering how exactly the Indian government designed its unique response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. One of the centrepieces of its response has been to punish journalists, by shutting them down or in many cases slapping them with nothing less than sedition charges, when journalists are critical of the government or seem to be asking uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, pseudoscientific claims that can directly cause harm, what with us being in the middle of a health emergency, are let off without so much as a slap on the wrist when they’re pronounced by journalists in pro-right-wing newsrooms or – as it often happens – by ministers in the government itself.
Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister of road transport and highways, has told NDTV that he believes the novel coronavirus was not natural and that it was made in a lab. Another BJP member, this one a state-level office-bearer, had some time back said something similarly idiotic, prompting a rare rebuke from Union minister Prakash Javadekar. But I doubt Javadekar is going to mete the same treatment out to Gadkari – his equal, so to speak – in public, and it’s what’s in the public domain that matters. So if there’s red stuff all over a journalist’s face, it’s tomato chutney, even if it’s actually blood. But on a minister’s face, it’s always blood even when it’s actually tomato chutney. And the government and its foot-soldiers have conditioned themselves as well as >30% of the country to follow this rule.
Second, NDTV is also complicit in the ignorance, irresponsibility and recklessness on display here because its report simply says Gadkari said what he did, without so much as a note mentioning that he’s wrong. The reason is that what Gadkari, Javadekar – who recently vowed to “expose” those who ranked India poorly in press-freedom indices – and their colleagues, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have done is hack journalism, at least journalism as it used to be practiced, with editors and reporters stubborn about not taking sides.
This culture of journalism was valid when, simply put, all political factions advanced equally legitimate arguments. And according to Modi et al, his government and colleagues are also advancing arguments that are as legitimate as – often if not more legitimate than – those in the opposition. But there’s often plain and simple evidence that these claims are wrong, often rooted in scientific knowledge (which is why Modi et al have been undermining “Western science” from the moment they assumed power in 2014). Journalists can’t treat both sides as equals anymore – whether they be the Left and the Right, the conservatives and the liberals or the progressives and the dogmatists – because one side, whether by choice or fate, has incorporated pseudoscience into its political ideals.
Now, sans a note that Gadkari is really spouting rubbish and that we have enough evidence to reject the idea that it was human-made and accept that it evolved naturally, NDTV is not – as it may believe – staying neutral as much as being exploited by Gadkari as a way to have his words amplified. NDTV is effectively complicit, bringing Gadkari’s unqualified nonsense to millions of its readers, many of them swayed as much by the authority and political beliefs of the claimant as others are by the weight or paucity of evidence.
Indeed, the news channel may itself be consciously playing to both sides: (i) those who know exactly why the minister and others who make such claims are wrong, joined increasingly by unthinkers who need to and do say fashionable things without understanding why what they’re saying is right (often the same people that place science in wrongful opposition to religion, social science and/or tradition); and (ii) the allegedly disenfranchised folks paranoid about everything that isn’t Indian and/or homegrown, and have since become unable to tell cow urine from a medicinal solution.
 I read some time ago that Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to god if he died and came face to face with an almighty creator. Russell, a famous skeptic of various religious beliefs, apparently said he would accuse god of not providing enough evidence of the latter’s existence. I don’t know if this story is true but Russell’s argument, as claimed, makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? In the context of Gadkari’s comment, and Luc Montagnier’s before him, complete evidence differs significantly from sufficient evidence., and it’s important to account for sufficiency in arguments concerning the novel coronavirus as well. For example, the people who believe the novel coronavirus originated in a lab are called conspiracy theorists not because they have an alternative view – as they often claim in defence – but because most of their arguments use the fallacy of the converse: that if there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove the virus evolved in nature, it must have originated in a lab. Similarly, I and many others are comfortable claiming the virus evolved naturally because there is sufficient evidence to indicate that it did. For the same reason, I also think I and many others can be proven wrong only if new information emerges.
Featured image: Union minister Nitin Gadkari, 2014. Credit: Press Information Bureau.
On April 23, I was part of a webinar called ProtoCall, organised by Pro.to with the support of International Centre for Journalists and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. It happens once a week and is hosted by Ameya Nagarajan and Nayantara Narayanan. Every week there’s a theme which, together with the discussion around it, is picked to help non-science and non-health journalists cover the coronavirus pandemic. The session before the one I was part of discussed the role of data, the gaps in data and how journalists could help fill them. My session was entitled ‘How muddled science drives misinformation’, and my fellow panelists were Shruti Muralidhar and Shahid Jameel, neither of whom should need introduction on the pages of this blog.
Given a brief ahead of the session (available to read here), I prepared some notes for the conversation and which I’m pasting below in full. Note that the conversation itself panned out differently (as military historians have noted, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”), so you could watch the full video if you’re interested or read the transcript when it comes out. Both Shruti and Dr Jameel made some great points throughout the conversation, plus the occasional provocative opinion (by myself as well).
1. Science journalists should continue to do what we’ve always had to do — empower our readers to decide for themselves based on what data they have available. Yes, this is a slow process, and yes, it’s tedious, but we shouldn’t have to adopt radical tactics now just because we haven’t been doing our job properly before. Introduce the relevant concept, theories, hypotheses, etc. as well as introduce how scientists evaluate data and keeping what in mind.
I can think of at least three doctors I’ve spoken to recently – all three of very good standing in the medical research community, and one is pro-lockdown, one is anti-lockdown, and one argues that there’s a time and place to impose a lockdown. This is a new virus for everybody and there is disagreement between doctors as well. But this doesn’t imply that some doctors are motivated by ideologies or whatever. It means the story here is that doctors disagree, period.
2. Because this is a new disease for everybody, be skeptical of every result, especially those that claim 100% certainty. No matter what anyone says, the only thing you can know with 100% certainty is that you cannot know anything with 100% certainty. This is a pandemic and suddenly everyone is interested in what scientific studies have to say, because people are desperately looking for hope and there will be a high uptake for positive news – no matter how misinformed or misguided.
But before everyone was interested in scientific studies, it was always the case that results from tests and experiments and such were never 100% accurate. They all had error rates, they were all contingent on replication studies, they were and are all works in progress. So no matter what a study says, you can very safely assume it has a caveat or a shortcoming, or a specific, well-defined context in which it is true, and you need to go looking for it.
3. It’s okay to take time to check results. At a time of such confusion and more importantly heightened risk, misinformation can kill. So take your time, speak to doctors and scientists. Resisting the pressure to publish quickly is important. If you’re on a hard deadline, be as conservative in your language as possible, just go with the facts – but then even facts are not entirely harmless. There are different facts pointing to different possibilities.
Amitabh Joshi said a couple years back at a talk that science is not about facts but about interpreting collections of facts. And scientists often differ because they’re interpreting different groups of facts to explain trends in the data. Which also means expertise is not a straightforward affair, especially in the face of new threats.
4. Please become comfortable saying “I don’t know”. I think those are some of the most important words these days. Too many people – especially many celebrities – think that the opposite of ‘true’ is ‘false’ and that the opposite of ‘false’ is ‘true’. But actually there’s a no man’s land in between called ‘I don’t know’, which stands for claims, data, etc. that we haven’t yet been able to verify yet.
Amitabh Bachchan recently recorded a video suggesting that the coronavirus is transmitted via human faeces and by flies that move between that faecal matter and nearby food items. The thing is, we don’t know if this is true. There have been some studies but obviously they didn’t specifically study what Amitabh Bachchan claimed. But saying ‘I don’t know’ here wouldn’t mean that the opposite of what Bachchan said is true. It would mean Bachchan was wrong to ascribe certainty to a claim that doesn’t presently deserve that certainty. And when you say you don’t know, please don’t attach caveats to a claim saying ‘it may be true’ or ‘it may be false’.
We need to get comfortable saying ‘we don’t know’ because then that’s how we know we need more research, and even that we need to support scientists, etc.
5. Generally beware of averages. Averages have a tendency to flatten the data, which is not good when regional differences matter.
6. Has there been a lot of science journalism of the pandemic in India? I’m not sure. A lot of explanations have come forth as background to larger stories about the technology, sampling/testing methods, governance, rights, etc. But I’ve seen very little of the mathematics, of the biology and research into the virus as such.
I don’t think this is a problem of access to scientists or availability of accessible material, which to my mind are secondary issues, especially from journalists’ point of view. Yes, you need to be able to speak to doctors and medical researchers, and many of them are quite busy these days and their priorities are very different. But also many, many scientists are sitting at home because of the lockdown and many of them are keen to help.
To me, it’s more a problem of journalists not knowing which questions to ask. For example, unless you know that something called a cytokine storm exists, to you it remains an unknown-unknown. So the bigger issue for me is that journalists shouldn’t expect to do a good job covering this crisis without knowing the underlying science. A cytokine storm is one example, but I’d say not many journalists are asking more important questions, from my point of view, about statistical methods, clinical trials, scientific publishing, etc. and I suspect it’s because they’re not aware these issues exist.
If you want to cover the health aspects like a seasoned health journalist would, there are obviously other things you’re going to have to familiarise yourself with, like pharmaceutical policy, clinical trials, how diseases are tracked, hospital administration, etc.
So I’d say learn the science/health or you’re going to have a tough time asking the right questions. You can’t expect to go into this thinking you can do a good job just by speaking to different doctors and scientists because sooner than later, you’re going to miss asking the right questions.
7. Three things have worked for The Wire Science, vis-à-vis working with freelancers and other editors.
First, there needs to be clear communication. For example, if you disagree with a submission, please take time out to explain what you think is wrong about it, because it often happens that the author knows the science very well but may just not have laid it out in a way that’s completely clear. This is also exhausting but in the long run it helps.
Second, set clear expectations. For example at The Wire Science, I insist on primary sources to all claims to the extent possible, so we don’t accidentally help magnify a dubious claim made by a secondary source. I don’t accept articles or comments on papers that have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal or in a legitimate preprint repository. And I insist that any articles based on scientific papers must carry an independent voice commenting on the merits and weaknesses of the study, even if the reporter hasn’t spoken to the paper’s authors themselves.
Interestingly enough, in our internal fact-check filters, these ‘clear expectations’ criteria act as pre-filters in the sense that if an article meets these three criteria, it’s also factually accurate more than 90% of the time. And because these criteria are fairly simple to define and identify in the article, anyone can check for them instead of just me.
Third, usually the flow of information and decisions in our newsroom is top-down-ish (not entirely top-down), but once the pandemic took centerstage, this organisation sort of became radial. Editors, reporters and news producers all have different ideas for stories and I’ve been available as a sort of advisor, so before they pursue any story, they sometimes come to me to discuss if they’re thinking about it the right way.
This way automatically prevents a lot of unfeasible ideas from being followed up. Obviously it’s not the ultimate solution but it covers a lot of ground.
8. The urgency and tension of a pandemic can’t be an excuse to compromise on quality and nuance. And especially at a time like now, misinformation can kill, so I’m being very clear with my colleagues and freelancers that we’re going to take the time to verify, that I’m going to resist the temptation to publish quickly. Even if there’s an implicit need to publish stuff quickly since the pandemic is evolving so fast, I’d say if you can write pieces with complexity and nuance, please do.
The need for speed arises, at least from what I can see, in terms of getting more traffic to your site and which in turn your product, business and editorial teams have together decided is going to be driven by primacy – in terms of being seen by your readers as the publication that puts information out first. So you’re going to need to have a conversation with your bosses and team members as well about the importance at a time like this of being correct over being fast. The Wire Science does incur a traffic penalty as a result of going a bit slower than others but it’s a clear choice for us because it’s been the lesser price to pay.
In fact, I think now is a great time to say to your readers, “It’s a pandemic and we want to do this right. Give us money and we’ll stop rushing for ads.”
There is this idea in physics that the fundamental laws of nature apply the same way for processes moving both forwards and backwards in time. So you can’t actually measure the passage of time by studying these processes. Where does our sense of time, rather the passage of time, come from then? How do we get to tell that the past and future are two different things, and that time flows from the former to the latter?
We sense time because things change. Clock time is commonly understood to be a way to keep track of when and how often things change but in physics, time is not the master: change doesn’t arise because of time but time arises because of change. So time manifests in the laws of nature through things that change in time. One of the simplest such things is entropy. Specifically, the second law of thermodynamics states that as time moves forward, the entropy of an isolated system cannot decrease. Entropy thus describes an arrow of time.
This is precisely what the pandemic is refusing to do, at least as seen through windows set at the very back of a newsroom. Many reporters writing about the coronavirus may have the luxury of discovering change, and therefore the forward march of time itself, but for someone who is somewhat zoomed out – watching the proceedings from a distance, as it were – the pandemic has only suffused the news cycle with more and more copies of itself, like the causative virus itself.
It seems to me as if time has stilled. I have become numb to news about the virus, which I suspect is a coping mechanism, like a layer of armour inserted between a world relentlessly pelting me with bad news and my psyche itself. But the flip side of this protection is an inability to sense the passage of time as well as I was able before.
My senses are alert to mistakes of fact, as well as mostly of argument, that reporters make when reporting on the coronavirus, and of course to opportunities to improve sentence construction, structure, flow, etc. But otherwise, and thanks in fact to my limited engagement with this topic, it feels as if I wake up every morning, my fingers groaning at the prospect of typing the words “lockdown”, “coronavirus”, “COVID-19”, “herd immunity” and whatever else1. And since this is what I feel every morning, there is no sense of change. And without change, there is no time.
1. I mean no offence to those suffering the pandemic’s, and the lockdown’s, brutal health, economic, social, cultural and political consequences.
I would desperately like to lose my armour. The bad news will never stop coming but I would still like to get back to bad news that I got into journalism to cover, the bad news that I know what to do about… to how things were before, I suppose.
Oh, I’m aware of how illogical this line of introspection is, yet it persists! I believe one reason is that the pandemic is a passing cloud. It leapt out of the horizon and loomed suddenly over all of us, over the whole world; its pall is bleak but none of us doubts that it will also pass. The pandemic will end – everybody knows this, and this is perhaps also why the growing desperation for it to dissipate doesn’t feel misplaced, or unjustified. It is a cloud, and like all clouds, it must go away, and therefrom arises the frustration as well: if it can go away, why won’t it?
Is it true that everything that will last for a long time also build up over a long time? Climate change, for example, doesn’t – almost can’t – have a single onset event. It builds and builds all around us, its effects creeping up on us. With each passing day of inaction, there is even less that we can do than before to stop it; in fact, so many opportunities have been squandered or stolen by bad actors that all we have left to do is reduce consumption and lower carbon emissions. So with each passing day, the planet visits us with more reminders of how we have changed it, and in fact may never have it back to the way it once was.
Almost as if climate change happened so slowly, on the human scale at least, that it managed to weave itself into our sense of time, not casting a shadow on the clock as much as becoming a part of the clock itself. As humankind’s grandest challenge as yet, one that we may never fully surmount, climate change doesn’t arise because of time but time arises because of climate change. Perhaps speed and surprise is the sacrifice that time demands of that which aspires to longevity.
The pandemic, on the other hand, likely had a single onset… right? At least it seems so until you realise the pandemic is in fact the tip of the proverbial iceberg – the thing jutting above the waterline, better yet the tip of the volcano. There is a complicated mess brewing underground, and out of sight, to which we have all contributed. One day the volcano shoots up, plastering its surroundings with lava and shooting smoke and soot kilometres into the air. For a time, the skies are a nuclear-winter grey and the Sun is blotted out. To consider at this time that we could stave off all future eruptions by pouring tonnes of concrete into the smouldering caldera would be folly. The pandemic, like magma, like the truth itself, will out. So while the nimbuses of each pandemic may pass, all the storm’s ingredients will persist.
I really hope the world, and I do mean the world, will heed this lesson as the novel coronavirus’s most important, if only because our sense of time and our expectations of what the passage of time could bring need to encompass the things that cause pandemics as much as they have come to encompass the things that cause Earth’s climate to change. We’ve become used to thinking about this outbreak, and likely the ones before it, as transitory events that begin and end – but really, wrapped up in our unrelenting yearning for the pandemic to pass is a conviction that the virus is a short-lived, sublunary creature. But the virus is eternal, and so our response to it must also transform from the mortal to the immortal.
Then again, how I wish my mind submitted, that too just this once, to logic’s will sans resistance. No; it yearns still for the pandemic to end and for ‘normal’ to recommence, for time to flow as it once did, with the promise of bringing something new to the threshold of my consciousness every morning. I sense there is a line here between the long- and the short-term, between the individual and the collective, and ultimately between the decision to change myself and the decision to wait for others before I do.
Sunny Kung, a resident in internal medicine at a teaching hospital in the US, has authored a piece in STAT News about her experience dealing with people with COVID-19, and with other people who deal with people with COVID-19. I personally found the piece notable because it describes a sort of experience of dealing with COVID-19 that hasn’t had much social sanction thus far.
That is, when a socio-medical crisis like the coronavirus pandemic strikes, the first thing on everyone’s minds is to keep as few people from dying as possible. Self-discipline and self-sacrifice, especially among those identified as frontline healthcare and emergency services workers, become greater virtues than even professional integrity and the pursuit of individual rights. As a result, these workers incur heavy social, mental and sometimes even physical costs that they’re not at liberty to discuss openly without coming across as selfish at a time when selflessness is precariously close to being identified as a fundamental duty.
Kung’s piece, along with some others like it, clears and maintains a precious space for workers like her to talk about what they’re going through without being vilified for it. Further, I’m no doctor, nurse or ambulance driver but ‘only’ a journalist, so I have even less sanction to talk about my anxieties than a healthcare worker does without inviting, at best, a polite word about the pandemic’s hierarchy of priorities.
But as the WHO itself has recognised, this pandemic is also an ‘infodemic’, and the contagion of fake news, misinformation and propaganda is often deadly – if not deadlier – than the effects of the virus itself. However, the amount of work that me and my colleagues need to do, and which we do because we want to, to ensure what we publish is timely, original and verified often goes unappreciated in the great tides of information and data.
This is not a plea for help but an unassuming yet firm reminder that:
Emergency workers come in different shapes, including as copy-editors, camerapersons and programmers – all the sort of newsroom personnel you never see but which you certainly need;
Just because it’s not immediately clear how we’re saving lives doesn’t mean our work isn’t worth doing, or that it’s easy to do; and
Saving lives is not the only outcome that deserves to be achieved during a socio-medical crisis.
A lot of what a doctor like Kung relates to, I can as well – and again, not in an “I want to steal your thunder” sort of way but as if this is a small window through which I get to shout “There are many thunders” sort of way. For example, she writes,
Every night during the pandemic I’ve dreaded showing up to work. Not because of fear of contracting Covid-19 or because of the increased workload. I dread having to justify almost every one of my medical decisions to my clinician colleagues.
Since the crisis began, I’ve witnessed anxiety color the judgement of many doctors, nurses, and other health care workers — including myself — when taking care of patients.
Many of us simply want to make sure we’re doing the right thing and to the best of our ability, that to the extent possible we’re subtracting the effects of fatigue and negligence from a situation rife with real and persistent uncertainty. But in the process, we’re often at risk of doing things we shouldn’t be doing.
As Kung writes, doctors and nurses make decisions out of fear – and journalists cover the wrong paper, play up the wrong statistic, quote the wrong expert or pursue the wrong line of inquiry. Kung also delineates how simply repeating facts, even to nurses and other medical staff, often fails to convince them. I often go through the same thing with my colleagues and with dozens of freelancers every week, who believe ‘X’ must be true and want to anticipate the consequences of ‘X’ whereas I, being more aware of the fact that the results of tests and studies are almost never 100% true (often because the principles of metrology themselves impose limits on confidence intervals but sometimes because the results depend strongly on the provenance of the input data and/or on the mode of publishing), want to play it safe and not advertise results that first seed problematic ideas in the minds of our readers but later turn out to be false.
So they just want to make sure, and I just want to make sure, too. Neither party is wrong but except with the benefit of hindsight, neither party is likely to be right either. I don’t like these conversations because they’re exhausting, but I wouldn’t like to abdicate them because it’s my responsibility to have them. And what I need is for this sentiment to simply be acknowledged. While I don’t presume to know what Kung wants to achieve with her article, it certainly makes the case for everyone to acknowledge that frontline medical workers like her have issues that in turn have little to do with the fucking virus.
In yet another reminder that the first six months (if not more) of 2020 will have been the worst infodemic in history, I can comfortably modify the following portions of Kung’s article…
They were clearly disgruntled about my decision not to transfer Mr. M to the ICU. I tried to reassure them by providing evidence, but I could still feel the tension and fear. The nurses wanted another M.D. to act as an arbiter of my decision but were finally convinced after I cited the patient’s stable vital signs, laboratory results, and radiology findings.
Everyone in the hospital is understandably on edge. Uncertainty is everywhere. Our hospital’s policies have been constantly changing about who we should test for Covid-19 and when we should wear what type of protective personal equipment. Covid-19 is still a new disease to many clinicians. We don’t know exactly which patients should go to the ICU and which are stable enough to stay on the regular floor. And it is only a matter of time before we run out of masks and face shields to protect front-line health care workers. …
As a resident in internal medicine and a future general internist, it is my duty to take care of these Covid-19 patients and reassure them that we are here to support them. That’s what I expect to do for all of my patients. What I did not expect from this pandemic is having to reassure other doctors, nurses, and health care workers about clinical decisions that I would normally never need to justify. …
There is emerging literature on diagnosing and treating Covid-19 patients that is easily accessible to physicians and nurses, but some of them are choosing to make their medical decisions based on fear — such as pushing for unnecessary testing or admission to the hospital, which may lead to overuse of personal protective equipment and hospital beds — instead of basing decisions on data or evidence. …
The freelancer was clearly disgruntled about my decision not to accept the story for publication. I tried to reassure them by providing evidence, but I could still feel the tension and resentment. The freelancer wanted another editor to act as an arbiter of my decision but was finally convinced after I cited the arguments’ flaws one by one.
Every reporter is understandably on edge. Uncertainty is everywhere. Our newsroom’s policies have been constantly changing about what kind of stories we should publish, using what language and which angles we should avoid. Covid-19 is still a new disease to many journalists. We don’t know exactly which stories are worth pursuing and which are stable enough to stay on the regular floor. And it is only a matter of time before we run low on funds and/or are scooped. …
As a science editor, it is my duty to look out for my readers and reassure them that we are here to support them. That’s what I expect to do for all of my readers. What I did not expect from this pandemic is having to reassure other reporters, editors, and freelancers about editorial decisions that I would normally never need to justify. …
There is emerging literature on diagnosing and treating Covid-19 patients that is easily accessible to reporters and editors, but some of them are choosing to make their editorial decisions to optimise for sensationalism or speed — such as composing news reports based on unverified claims, half-baked data, models that are “not even wrong” or ideologically favourable points of view, which may lead readers to under- or overestimate various aspects of the pandemic — instead of basing decisions on data or evidence. …
More broadly, I dare to presume frontline healthcare workers already have at least one (highly deserved) privilege that journalists don’t, and in fact have seldom had: the acknowledgment of the workload. Yes, I want to do the amount of work I’m doing because I don’t see anyone else being able to do it anytime soon (and so I even take pride in it) but it’s utterly dispiriting to be reminded, every now and then, that the magnitude of my commitment doesn’t just languish in society’s blindspot but is often denied its existence.
Obviously very little of this mess is going to be cleaned up until the crisis is past its climax (although, like ants on a Möbius strip, we might not be able to tell which side of the problem we’re on), at which point the world’s better minds might derive lessons for all of us to learn from. At the same time, the beautiful thing about acknowledgment is that it doesn’t require you to determine, or know, if what you’re acknowledging is warranted or not, whether it’s right or wrong, even as the acknowledgment itself is both right and warranted. So please do it as soon as you can, if only because it’s the first precious space journalists need to clear and maintain.