Feature Article: COVID-19 Has Put Everyone in a Front Row Seat to Science

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Many people will not go to amusement parks this summer. They will miss having cotton candy and popcorn. They will miss watching parades and fireworks. And, they will miss waiting in line for their favorite ride, watching as others scream with delight, or fear, as they race by; their own anticipation growing as they get closer to the front of the line. They will miss all of this because a new virus — something we can’t see with the naked eye — is lurking, threatening, and menacing. Metaphorically, this virus has placed all of us in the front seat of the highest, and longest, roller coaster of all — that of scientific discovery.

How society ended up on the roller coaster

While daily life is filled with activities and decisions seeped in scientific discovery, most don’t think about it that way. The maps that show our weather on the morning news, the pot that brews our coffee after being programmed the night before, and the vehicle we take to work are all the result of knowledge gained through scientific discovery. But, when many people think about science, they remember high school science classes rather than the process of science that leads to maps, programmable coffee pots and transportation.

When SARS-CoV-2 evolved as a new virus, the process of scientific discovery started anew. But, when the virus proved to be a danger to human life, very quickly, and by necessity, everyone became interested in this virus. Going to the internet to find answers to questions about COVID-19 was not an option. How to treat it? No. How to avoid it? Nope. How does it spread? Uh-uh. Scientific discovery was just getting started, and this, is why society is now strapped into the front seat of a roller coaster. It is why understanding how science evolves is critical. It is why thinking like a scientist can help.

How the roller coaster of scientific discovery works

Roller coaster rides are marked by ups and downs, wild turns and straightaways, and slow starts and fast stops. These extremes are part of what makes them exhilarating for some and scary to others.

The same is true of scientific discovery. It, too, can be characterized by these extremes — and, it is why some love the process of science, and others are scared by it. But, even for those who are not scientists, it is helpful to know more about how it works. Right now, thousands of scientists around the world are working feverishly to learn about COVID-19.

As they share their results, the findings will be critically evaluated by their colleagues:

  • Was the study designed well?
  • Did they use proper controls?
  • Were appropriate statistical analyses completed?
  • Among others.

This is called peer review. It is an important part of the scientific process. To non-scientists, this may look like disagreement among scientists, and at some level, it is, but it is not disagreement based on beliefs. It is disagreement based on critical analysis of the study and the conclusions reached.

Another important part of these “discussions among scientists” is how the findings agree with existing knowledge. Have others found similar results? If not, which findings are supported with the most evidence? Is there some alternative explanation that allows both findings to coexist — something that may not have been considered yet, which will change how scientists think about the relevant body of knowledge?

To those who do not practice science, this may look like information is constantly changing, and they may conclude that no one is reliable. But the reality is that this is how science works, and it benefits everyone for it to work this way.

The roller coaster as part of the park

On your park map, you will find information about the roller coaster. Where is it located? Are there any rider restrictions? You may find a brief description that can help you sort out some of what you need to know, but it may or may not answer all of your questions.

The pandemic is currently shaping daily life, so it is an important news story. As such, the media is working to share various aspects of the COVID-19 story. Fortunately, this means the public can find out what is being learned quickly. Unfortunately, it means that sometimes:

  • Studies are reported before the scientific community has critically evaluated the findings. Sometimes, this is referred to as “science by press release.”
  • The discussions among scientists are reported as arguments or disagreements, when in reality they represent a natural, and necessary, part of the scientific process.
  • Information is incorrectly interpreted by the writer or reporter, who more often than not does not have a scientific background.
  • The space or time allotted to sharing the story only allows for soundbites that require viewers to “fill in the blanks” or draw their own conclusions.

How the roller coaster compares with other roller coasters

Maybe to get more answers about what to expect on the roller coaster, you decide to check the internet. You are likely to find all kinds of stories about it — some good, some bad, some anecdotal, some informational. Regardless, chances are, you will value the stories that favor your own beliefs about the roller coaster. If you are inclined to ride it, you will “lean into” the good stories. If you are inclined not to ride, you will preferentially recall the bad stories.

The same is true of internet searches about other topics, including COVID-19:

  • If someone has a pre-existing position on the topic, it will affect both how they search for information as well as the information they choose to review and their interpretation of it.
  • The internet is not the Encyclopedia Britannica, meaning that some information may not have been vetted for accuracy before being posted.
  • Related to this, some content providers specifically aim to misinform and disenfranchise, including, in some cases, posing as “experts.”
  • Likewise, after spending time combing the internet about a particular topic, some assume the same amount of understanding as those who have spent their career studying it. Everyone who has a job can relate to the fact that the longer you are in a position, the more you learn about it, so while online research offers a great opportunity to gain understanding, it cannot replace the lived experience.

This means that “searching the internet” needs to be active and intentional, with a realization of the potential pitfalls. In many cases, the information being sought is to make a decision more consequential than whether or not to ride a roller coaster.

Your friends on the roller coaster

Maybe you talk to friends who have been to the park before to learn about their experiences. Chances are you will also discuss the roller coaster with your friends and even strangers as you stand in line together. These conversations will also color your thoughts about the impending ride. If those around you are excited, you likely will be too, but if you are with a nervous group, your anxiety may rise.

The same is true of social media as a source of news and information. While social media offers a great opportunity for us to “be social,” it is a less perfect way of being informed. Not only may the information be biased, but we can also be unduly influenced by those who immediately surround us — our networks.

As such, a few important considerations relate to getting information from social media channels:

  • These channels provide information using filters that are purposefully “personalized.” While this sounds helpful, in reality, it positions people to only see information that supports their pre-existing interests or ideas. Therefore, if this is a person’s only source of information, they may be getting only part of a story.
  • Likewise, it has been well reported that some have seized on the ability to spread misinformation on social media to divide people.
  • Even if information is forwarded by a friend, respected contact or leader, it should be evaluated by its original source. If you can’t tell who originally posted it, you should not believe it or forward it until you can confirm it with information from a reliable organization or supporting data.
  • Users should understand that getting news and information from social media is different than getting it from traditional media. The latter, while not perfect, presents content prepared by trained professionals and in accord with the Federal Communications Commission media policies. Similar policies are not, and have never been, in place for social media platforms. So, additional care and more critical evaluation of content on social media should be considered.

Tips for navigating the roller coaster

For those who need to make a decision about riding the roller coaster, they will need to evaluate the information they collected and consider who it is from to make the best decision for themselves. After riding the roller coaster, they will have their own information, and the more they ride, the more they will know.

Like the roller coaster, in years to come, we will have more information based on our collective experience with COVID-19. But, in the meantime, we are left to gathering information, evaluating it and making the best decisions we can at the time. This means people need to:

  1. Understand how science works.
  2. Monitor multiple media sources, and evaluate the quality and breadth of information presented by each.
  3. Critically evaluate information on the internet for its source, accuracy and potential biases.
  4. Be honest with themselves about their own potential biases and develop a habit of actively evaluating information.
  5. Remember that information from social media is subject to less regulation, may be biased toward the receiver’s interests, and may intentionally seek to misinform, including posts forwarded by friends.

Regardless of how the coming months play out, it is important to remember that while this is uncomfortable and uninvited, a day will come when we will be able to “step off” the COVID-19 roller coaster.

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Resources that can help when evaluating information

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.