Science Friday: Coronavirus and How Best to Yard Up and Use Scientific Info

Criteria for determining best available scientific information (BASI). Source: Forest Service Handbook 1909.12.07.12
We started with an introduction to PNS or post normal science a few weeks ago, here, when we were talking about climate science and different ways of developing and using scientific expertise. Coronavirus, though, has caused an upwelling of scientific activity by different disciplines, combined with a vast array across the world of real-time policy decisions at all spatial and temporal scales. So it’s interesting to compare and contrast these problems and solutions with how we use science in our own humble and much-less-urgent world (forests). The image above is on best available scientific information (BASI) as in the Handbook for the development of Forest Plans.

Here’s an article from the Guardian.

Experts have voiced growing frustration over the UK government’s claim that it is “following the science”, saying the refrain is being used to abdicate responsibility for political decisions. They also raised concerns that the views of public health experts were being overlooked, with disproportionate weight given to the views of modellers. “As a scientist, I hope I never again hear the phrase ‘based on the best science and evidence’ spoken by a politician,” Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian. “This phrase has become basically meaningless and used to explain anything and everything.”

Hmm. Different disciplines disagree on what is “best” (most relevant).. but in addition, there are even disagreements within disciplines (in their case, different modeling centers). Sounds like us, although those are seldom covered in the press.

However, Sridhar and others argued that scientific views on these topics could be wide-ranging and dependent on a scientist’s field of expertise. The diversity of scientific views was apparent in March when case numbers were rising rapidly but the government chose not to ban mass gatherings or introduce wide-reaching physical distancing. World Health Organization advice, and what we’ve learned from lots of previous outbreaks in low- and middle-income countries, is that the faster you move at the start, the better, because it’s exponential growth,” Sridhar said. “In public health, a test, trace and isolate campaign would’ve been where your mind first went.” Instead, she said, the government appeared to be basing policy on the presumption of a binary choice between two scenarios, played out in computer models, of either eradicating the virus or it becoming endemic.

“What we’re not talking about in the same formal, quantitative way are the economic costs, the social costs, the psychological costs of being under lockdown,” he said. “I understand that the government is being advised by economists, psychiatrists and others, but we’re not seeing what that science is telling them. I find that very puzzling.” Woolhouse said that while it was understandable that saving lives was the top priority, the idea of doing this at any cost was naive. “With any disease there is a trade-off. Public health is largely about that trade-off. What’s happening here is that both sides of the equation are so enormous and so damaging that the routine public health challenge of balancing costs and benefits is thrown into incredibly stark relief. Yet that balance has to be found.”

Balancing trade-offs..sounds like us, in fact it sounds a bit like NEPA Section 2. “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man.” But also at this level, which discipline and tool you pick or leave out has ramifications. Is this an entirely scientific judgment? Or is there a different meta-science discussion of “what scientific tools should we use”? Otherwise, policy-makers get what’s on offer, which seems kind of random for important decisions.

Others expressed concern about the lack of transparency around the evidence affecting decision-making. “We don’t know who sits on Sage [the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies], we see very little of the papers that go to Sage,” said Prof Sheila Bird, the former programme leader of the Medical Research Council’s biostatistics unit at the University of Cambridge. “That scientific underpinning is not evident.”

Sridhar said the failure to fully consider the perspectives of experts beyond epidemiology may have contributed to misguided decisions. Models appear not to have factored in the role of hospital staff shortages, which may have diverted attention from the urgent need for adequate personal protective equipment, she said.
The concept of shielding the most vulnerable “looks beautiful” in models, she said, but in reality care homes are facing major outbreaks and multigenerational households are struggling to isolate the vulnerable. “You can’t take these people out of the system and isolate them as if they were a data point on a graph,” she said.
“There’s a real problem if you have a collection of people from the same background, the same field, the same institutions; that can lead to blindspots and groupthink,” Sridhar added. “Diversity is clearly important for better decision-making.”

Our business is generally not urgent, nor life and death. So we have time to “do it right”. And there are things that practitioners know (hospital staff shortages?) that may not be obvious to scientists doing research at universities. So here we have it. How best to put it all together for decisionmakers?

What is your favorite example of a decision in which you felt that all the relevant scientific disciplines and practitioners were brought to bear on a policy or management issue in an open and transparent way? It doesn’t matter for these purposes if the decision at the end was made with a political or even partisan political lens, I’m interested in the actual process of developing shared information and open dialogue, between disciplines and between scientists, natural resource professional/practitioners, knowledgeable local folks, and other stakeholders.

Also, FYI Stephanie Lepp of Infinite Lunchbox sent a link to this video, which is an introduction to PNS and Coronavirus.

Here are a few quotes from an article in Issues in Science and Technology, called “How not to lose the COVID-19 Communications War”:

Accurate scientific information is key for meaningful public debate and decision-making. And correctives to misinformation provide instant gratification during an otherwise unpredictable and potentially long-term crisis that so far has not provided scientists and policy-makers with a lot of success stories. Organizations such as the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the World Health Organization can quickly implement myth-busting and rumor-control websites with the reasonable hope of staving off a more widespread problem down the road.
However, as the COVID-19 “infodemic,” as WHO calls it, escalates, those communicating scientific information are at risk not only of oversimplifying the misinformation problem itself but also of failing to recognize and address other factors that complicate efforts to communicate effectively about COVID-19. In particular, the seductively simple directive to be “accurate,” which lies at the heart of science communication, obscures the reality that accuracy is a tenuous notion during a crisis such as this, in which uncertainty reigns. Science that was considered correct at the outset will likely turn out to be incorrect or incomplete, making it difficult to draw a bright line between misinformation and science that is legitimately contested. Further, just as the public health questions that arise during a pandemic go far beyond numbers such as death rates to include matters of social inequity and ailing health care infrastructure, the communication issues that complicate an infodemic are much broader than the mere existence of falsehood.


In the midst of this accelerated crisis, it is virtually impossible to determine which sets of “facts” are most relevant for making trade-offs required for effective action. Focusing narrowly on “accuracy” in COVID-19 communications can thus obscure the reality that many of the possible choices are rightfully guided not by utilitarian calculus but by values and relationships whose importance is independent of science altogether. In the scope of COVID-19, policy choices require myriad decisions likely to create both harms and benefits that are themselves unevenly distributed. For example, as society increasingly allows automated and intrusive surveillance measures to enforce social distancing protocol, how will it be determined whether such efforts have been “worth it”? Prevention by surveillance will cost a great deal in terms of civil liberties, but by acting in haste, society may overestimate its value or fail to ensure clear exit strategies after the pandemic

1 thought on “Science Friday: Coronavirus and How Best to Yard Up and Use Scientific Info”

  1. One probably important distinction between the pandemic response and management of national forests is that the latter has decision criteria based on values embedded in laws that can focus the use of science. ESA is most clear in its requirement to list species based on a set of scientific factors and to not jeopardize them, but NFMA’s diversity requirement requires a scientific evaluation of whether species will remain viable. Beyond that it’s “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run,” though, which is where we are with managing the pandemic. This ambiguity allows for political manipulation of how science is used and political spin in communicating about that. The pandemic has at least made people pay attention to science again and to ask these kinds of questions.


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