Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication
How to handle confusion without misleading people at the same time helping them manage it.
The COVID 19 Pandemic has thrown several uncertainties at us. One area where this precariousness is more seen is clinical research. The need to report with speed made the researchers go for preprints instead of peer-reviewed papers. This corona virus is behaving strangely too making researchers report various things with high unpredictable rate.
Science communicators, journalists are now getting confused and are asking me how they can make sense of all this and report things to the general public without causing more chaos.
We have been discussing this very frequently.
The first thing to remember here is we have to admit that we don't know much. Some scientists are doing this but at the same time they are creating more misinformation too!
Let me explain. Please visit this page (from a site run by Indian scientists): https://indscicov.in/for-public/busting-hoaxes/
The page has strange explanations that confuse people more. For instance, the question whether air conditioners can spread the corona virus. The page says, verdict: Not enough evidence.
The explanation says: experience from handling of past epidemics and knowledge of the survival period of SARS-CoV2 are leading to some common-sense conclusions. These indicate single-room air-conditioners in well-ventilated areas are unlikely to spread the virus. ( it also gives a reference to who page: https://www.who.int/sustainable-development/health-sector/health-ri... )
Okay, if you say there isn't enough evidence that air conditioners spread the virus, people would think that air conditioners are safe.
However, I found another paper in a peer -reviewed journal with the title " COVID-19 Outbreak Associated with Air Conditioning in Restaurant, Guangzhou, China, 2020" and says, 'strong airflow from the air conditioner could have propagated droplets from table C to table A, then to table B, and then back to table C in the restaurant. ... We conclude that in this outbreak, droplet transmission was prompted by air-conditioned ventilation. The key factor for infection was the direction of the airflow'.
Now what do you do?
A responsible science communicator puts these two things before people, explain the uncertainty in clear terms and ask the people to be cautious till facts get established.
However, the first site people refused to accept the second one and stuck with their 'argument' (I don't want to give the inside story now). But the authors of the second paper confirmed with these words that they have taken all things into account: From our examination of the potential routes of transmission, we concluded that ...
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Scientists have to realize this!
So, how do you deal with uncertainties and controversies?
If the controversy is between science and faith or pseudo-science, I take the side of science because after a thorough critical analysis, I find it the most accurate thing to follow.
If the controversy is between two views of science ( although just opinions have no place in science, if the science is not established fully, it becomes controversial ), I put both sides before people with all possible evidences and leave it to them to decide what to trust.
If it affects them some way, I ask them to be cautious while dealing with the subject.
Years of experience told me that is the right way of dealing with uncertainties and confusion.
Update: We now have a few guidelines based on evidence level B (and I am proved right now, there is some evidence now and being cautious is correct) :
COVID 19 - Guidelines for air conditioning and ventilation