A problem of clarity and scientists versus journalists, or, why the world needs scientific journalists

We have a problem today.

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that asymptomatic people very rarely transmit the coronavirus, and mask-haters rejoiced. Less than a day later, they seemed to retract their announcement, or change it, or … well what is it that happened?

It appears that Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO did announce that those who have the coronavirus and who are asymptomatic are not likely to shed the virus. That is true. But she used a scientific term–asymptomatic–that reporters have been using with a different meaning in English-speaking news outlets. That is, reporters use it to mean “when the person has the virus but is not yet showing symptoms” and Van Kerkhove used it to mean “when the person has the virus and is not showing symptoms and will never go on to show symptoms.”

The scientific term for “when ther person has the virus and is not yet showing symptoms and is going to start showing symptoms any moment or day now” is presymptomatic, and oh yes, those people absolutely can shed the virus through casual contact. Got it?

Do you see what happened?

The problem is multi-fold. First, we have various news outlets with an agenda. Some were simply waiting for anyone to say or imply that it is safe to go out when you feel well, without a mask, without safety precautions. The “I need a haircut” people from the early American protests read these news outlets.

Next, we have socially distant news conferences, which are not conducive to clarifying misleading terms. If it had been the opposite–if she had said the word “presymptomatic–” someone could possibly have asked for a clarification. But because she used a term that we are all used to hearing or reading about, there appeard to be no need for clarification. Scientists, too, need to be aware of what they are saying, because their words carry a lot of power right now.

But having a cadre of journalists who are now being thrown into scientific and medical writing is a really large part of the problem. What if the writers who had been reporting on Covid-19 this whole time had been actual scientific writers? What if they had come from the American Medical Writers Association or its counterpart in other countries? They are writers who might have questioned the apparent discrepancy between what we knew and what they were saying, and perhaps unpacked the definition of the term “asymptomatic” and even, perhaps, asked the question.

We need to do better at bringing the news to the public, and that means not only having spokespeople being clear in their announcements but also having people who will understand the science and medicine reporting on it. Or we will have more confusion and reason for conspiracy theorists to spin their wheels and distribute more drivel.

Be clear with your words and ask the right questions, because any error feeds the fuel for anti-science. And we don’t want that.

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