Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering
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.