Insights

Indefinite articles: tackling highly polarised topics

Just how binary can human beings get?

It sometimes feels as if the whole pandemic has been a vivid lesson in binary thinking. We seem to find it more comfortable to think in dichotomies and to polarise over issues, often taking opposing positions to extremes.

So we don’t just believe that vaccination is an important tool in the fight against SARS-CoV2, we think that people who choose not to be vaccinated are betraying the social contract; we don’t just believe that masks are unnecessary, we think they’re muzzles that destroy our freedoms.

Among the fiercely polarising issues during this pandemic have been the tools of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), from masks to social distancing to banning public gatherings to hard lockdowns.

There’s no doubt that NPIs have caused harm, including economic damage and significant public health harms as people, for example, failed to attend clinics that screen for TB due to travel restrictions. But “Governments were not faced with the choice between the harms of lockdown and the harms of COVID-19, but rather sought to find the means to minimise the impact of both,” as Dr Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz and his colleagues write in a recent BMJ article (see the link under Insights).

It is going to take a very long time to gather data, weigh up the impact of virus and NPIs, and tease out the implications. The job of the journalist is to present the information as it is arrived at and published, of course; but just as we need to explain the uncertainties of scientific research, we also need to lay out the uncertainties and point to the unknowns in assessing this harm.

We know we’ll get some very neat little packages offered up to us as researchers make findings. It will be tempting to go for the definite statement. But if we do not carefully report findings and subject them to reflection and, if necessary, qualification, then experience shows that the audience will easily and comfortably slide into definitive interpretations which will often feed polarisation. It’s important that we convey information in ways that remind our audience of the unfinished and evolving nature of this long exercise, where what has been quantified may later be inflected by what remains to be uncovered, identified and analysed, of the seen and the yet-to-be even guessed-at.

Facebook versus The BMJ: when fact checking goes wrong
19th January 2022, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

On 3 November Howard Kaplan, a retired dentist from Israel, posted a link to a BMJ investigation article in a private Facebook group.1 The investigation reported poor clinical trial research practices occurring at Ventavia, a contract research company helping to...

Myocarditis and Vaccines @GidMK Twitter Thread
19th January 2022, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Health Nerd @GidMK I think the vaccine/COVID myocarditis issue in kids really shows the difference between those reasonably weighing up costs and benefits and those who are either dishonest or not very good at epidemiology 1/n 9:54 PM · Jan...

Fact check: The theory that SARS-CoV-2 is becoming milder
14th January 2022, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

There’s a growing narrative in the mainstream media, on social media — maybe even at your dinner table. That is: The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is weakening and evolving into a less deadly virus. In the future, each new variant that crops...

Patients with the omicron variant of covid-19 shed virus for longer after symptoms emerge, show data from Japan, potentially jeopardising hopes that the period of isolation for people testing positive could be shortened. Preliminary data from the National Institute of...

Could microclots help explain the mystery of long Covid?
5th January 2022, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

One of the biggest failures during the Covid-19 pandemic is our slow response in diagnosing and treating long Covid. As many as 100 million people worldwide already suffer from long Covid. That staggering number will eventually be much higher, if...

Elsevier has subjected an entire special issue of a journal — including a paper claiming COVID-19 vaccines kill five times more people over 65 than they save — to an expression of concern. The special issue of Toxicology Reports contained...

J&J vaccine loses antibody protection against Omicron: study
15th December 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine produced virtually no antibody protection against the omicron coronavirus variant in a laboratory experiment, underlining the new strain’s ability to get around one pillar of the body’s defences. The vaccine appears to provide some defence against...

‘Science is flawed’: COVID-19, ivermectin, and beyond
11th December 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

There are no two ways about it: Science is flawed. We’re not talking about the philosophical leanings of science or the origins of white coats and linoleum-floored laboratories, but about the nuts and bolts of the process by which we...

With restricted face-to-face interactions, COVID-19 lockdowns and distancing measures tested the capability of computer-mediated communication to foster social contact and wellbeing. In a multinational sample (n = 6436), we investigated how different modes of contact related to wellbeing during the pandemic. Computer-mediated...

Rethinking Molnupiravir
1st December 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

I was quite surprised by the efficacy that Merck reported for the viral polymerase inhibitor molnupiravir when those interim trial results were announced in October. But the FDA just held an advisory committee meeting on the drug yesterday (here’s Matthew...

New Concerning Variant: B.1.1.529
26th November 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

I hope everyone in the States had a fantastic Thanksgiving (even if you’re a Dallas Cowboys football fan). I hate to ruin the holiday, but… We have a new variant. I’ve not seen this much anxiety ridden chatter among scientists...

Heavily mutated Omicron variant puts scientists on alert
25th November 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Researchers in South Africa are racing to track the concerning rise of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The variant harbours a large number of the mutations found in other variants, including Delta, and it seems...

Even Health-Care Workers With Long COVID Are Being Dismissed
24th November 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Before she caught COVID-19 at a wedding in March 2020, the physician associate spent her days diagnosing and treating people; after she was infected, she turned to her own colleagues for that same care. “At first,” she told me, “I...

Science changes – and so should rational behaviour
24th November 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

The world around us, and the way researchers study and understand it, changes all the time. The constant change means that what we know through science also shifts. Take the airborne nature of SARS-CoV-2: early in the COVID-19 pandemic key...

Pharmaceutical messianism and the COVID-19 pandemic
14th November 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Abstract As part of their populist performances during disease outbreaks, public officials and politicians tend to offer ‘miracle cures’ or ‘wonder drugs’ that can supposedly treat or prevent the disease in question. This article analyzes contemporary instances of what we...

Scientists: don’t feed the doubt machine
2nd November 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Researchers at the COP26 climate talks this month know well how doubt can be weaponized to delay action — something many COVID-19 scientists have taken too long to appreciate. They point out problematic methods, poor study design and unjustified claims,...

The Problem with Preprints
1st November 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Much of the public first heard of “preprints” on March 20, 2020, just nine days after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, when a too-good-to-be-true treatment for SARS-CoV-2 infection appeared on medRxiv. The paper, which described a small clinical...

The real scandal about ivermectin
23rd October 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Ivermectin is an antiparasitic drug, and a very good one. If you are infected with the roundworms that cause river blindness or the parasitic mites that cause scabies, it is wonderfully effective. It is cheap; it is accessible; and its...

What Even Counts as Science Writing Anymore?
2nd October 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

I entered 2020 thinking of myself as a science writer. I ended the year less sure. While the first sparks of the COVID-19 pandemic ignited at the end of 2019, I was traipsing through a hillside in search of radio-tagged...

Most Covid-19 vaccine misinformation in the US is driven by 12 individuals, most of whom work in ‘alternative medicine’. Joseph Mercola, the leading member of the ‘dirty dozen’, is worth more than $100-million. At the height of South Africa’s Aids...

The tangled history of mRNA vaccines
14th September 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

In late 1987, Robert Malone performed a landmark experiment. He mixed strands of messenger RNA with droplets of fat, to create a kind of molecular stew. Human cells bathed in this genetic gumbo absorbed the mRNA, and began producing proteins...

Understanding long COVID: a modern medical challenge
28th August 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the need to understand and respond to long COVID is increasingly pressing. Symptoms such as persistent fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog, and depression could debilitate many millions of people globally. Yet very little is known about...

In 1988, as Russian scientist Nikolai Ustinov worked in the VECTOR lab, part of a Russian program to develop viral weapons, he accidentally infected himself with the Marburg virus, a deadly pathogen related to Ebola. He died weeks later. During...

Profiteering from vaccine inequity: a crime against humanity?
16th August 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Early in the pandemic, Pfizer announced an intention to profit from its covid-19 vaccine.1 In the first three months of 2021, Pfizer’s vaccine brought in $3.5bn (£2.5bn; €3bn) in revenue and hundreds of millions in profit.2 Other companies are also...

Abstract Scientists across disciplines, policymakers, and journalists have voiced frustration at the unprecedented polarization and misinformation around coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Several false dichotomies have been used to polarize debates while oversimplifying complex issues. In this comprehensive narrative review,...

Summary Background The COVID-19 pandemic priorities have focused on prevention, detection, and response. Beyond morbidity and mortality, pandemics carry secondary impacts, such as children orphaned or bereft of their caregivers. Such children often face adverse consequences, including poverty, abuse, and...

Introduction During the pandemic, there has been ongoing and contentious debate around the impact of restrictive government measures to contain SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks, often termed ‘lockdowns’. We define a ‘lockdown’ as a highly restrictive set of non-pharmaceutical interventions against COVID-19, including...

Defining covid-19 elimination
15th July 2021, Curated by Mandi Smallhorne

Speaking about progress towards ending the covid-19 epidemic in the United States, Anthony Fauci said: “We will end the epidemic phase, and we will likely get somewhere between control and elimination, more likely closer to control.”1 Now authorities in England...