Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
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The Faustian Bargain Between Pandemic Scientists and the Media

Casting scientists as polarizing media figures has proved a disservice to both science and the public

Eran Bendavid
October 18, 2021
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The giddy enthusiasm about the graceful science that has given us effective vaccines for COVID-19 (at least relative to historical precedents) has overshadowed other, less appealing aspects of our society’s efforts to wade through the pandemic. The role of the media and journalism in covering the emerging science, including the role scientists have played in amplifying nonscientific narratives, is one such feature.

The irony of critiquing the media in a media outlet is not lost on me. After early forays into the public sphere, I backed away from the Faustian bargain with media outlets: the one where I get limelight and exposure and they get my highly credentialed sound bites backed by my infectious disease training and the Stanford brand. That said, I am keenly aware of the inconsistency of writing in a popular media outlet of the type I hold responsible for recruiting scientists into a cycle of caustic behaviors.

I am an infectious diseases physician, and a faculty member at Stanford University. My areas of academic expertise include disease modeling and empirical health policy evaluations. I study the role of biomedical, behavioral, and health care interventions in the control of communicable diseases using mathematical models. To my surprise, I became an exemplar of a scientist with expertise relevant to the most pressing problem facing the world—and I was popular with reporters.

Yet, from the early days of COVID-19, I routinely found myself in a state of profound unknowing: I could not understand how it spread, or why it hit some places hard early on (Bergamo, Queens) while sparing others (Vietnam, India), or why waves came as they did, and faded as they did. Even now, with much more information, I have little confidence in my ability to predict where and why and how the next waves will come.

I thought I would find this uncertainty a common stance among scientists. Not because of inadequate training or experience, nor because of an inability to read or synthesize the ballooning scientific literature. Rather, because the science has provided sound answers for very few of the key questions that reporters and policymakers ask. Do masks change the spread of the virus in schools? Can vaccines slow the development of variants? Did school closures contribute to flattening the curve? When is the next wave likely to happen? I would hope that any scientist worth their salt would have some variant of the answer: “I’m not sure.”

Partly, this is because these questions are not constructed in a way that science can answer. It is like asking, “Is running good for you?” Well, what kind of running? How much, for whom, in which conditions? What exactly does “good for you” mean?

“Are children at risk from COVID-19?” is not a question with a single yes or no scientific answer. It’s complicated, and it depends on the details.

Niels Bohr, arguably among those most resembling the Platonic Form of a scientist, said, “I try not to speak more clearly than I think.” I admire—and aspire to—the attitudes of questioning, wonder, curiosity, uncertainty, and nuance that characterize the stance of many scientists.

But the pandemic scientist in the public limelight does not typically don this nuanced and cautious outlook, grounded in scientific norms of humility and skepticism. The pandemic scientist was portrayed in the media as self-assured, confident, and in possession of answers. In the media, many scientists reminded me of the quip, “often wrong, never in doubt.” How to explain the gap between the humble scientist weighing different streams of evidence and the talking head scientist on the screen speaking with confidence well in excess of her data?

In the spring of 2020, I found myself in the middle of a Twitter and print media shitstorm. I led the Santa Clara Seroprevalence Study, the first study to measure the extent of COVID-19 spread in a major U.S. county. The science behind our study was pedestrian, and similar findings have been found many times since.

Yet the study, regrettably with our help, triggered the media well beyond its scientific virtues. On Twitter and other media, scientists claimed that I owed the world an apology, that I had blood on my hands, that the study was corrupt and that I was bought off by private interests. I was also told it was the most important study in the COVID-19 era, that finally someone was being rational in this pandemic, and that I saved this country from tyranny. These are all hyperbolic nonscientific positions, amplified by the media.

Among the lesser-known consequences of this media-fueled episode was an infusion of acrimony and fear into many in the scientific community. My own university was split, with scientists—many of them close friends of mine—staking polar positions beyond the strength of evidence. In this atmosphere, science was a big loser. The sense of danger in entering COVID-19 research deterred students and trainees from good research projects. Colleagues veered away from studies for fear of reprobation if their findings ended up on the “wrong” side of the media narratives. The test kit we used—a reliable-enough rapid test distributed by a small company in Minnesota—came under political investigation. Suddenly, doing science seemed like a dangerous endeavor. Stanford students are back on campus, but my own department has not yet recovered from this acrimony.

How did this happen? A part of the answer is that media outlets induced and seduced scientists to collude into creating an adversarial public fray. Living through COVID is not really like “living through a war”: No fighter jets or Hellfire missiles were involved, no tanks or ground troops, no ordnance or amputated limbs. In reality, there were no truly opposing sides, as nearly everyone had shared goals: reduce morbidity, mortality, suffering, anxiety, and loss. It may have felt like war at times, with a sense of urgency, an “enemy” of sorts, and newsrooms in command-and-control mode.

The terrible collective pain and loss this country endured—many dead and much suffering—was real, of course. However, the strife among scientists was a separate dynamic from the death and disease. It was constructed and amplified by the media. The “war” narrative of the battle over scientific truth was constructed to draw the attention of viewers, to the detriment of science and the public.

The ‘war’ narrative of the battle over scientific truth was constructed to draw the attention of viewers, to the detriment of science and the public.

Media constructed this “war,” and scientists participated. They shouted from the rooftops to close the schools, open the schools, test daily, avoid screening. Long COVID is common, and long COVID is rare. Those proclamations often ran beyond the evidence. Is getting COVID risky for children? Well, that depends on which children, the range of existing evidence, and what “risky” means.

We have become dependent on little dopamine and adrenaline surges from the news. The appearance of danger in the form of “dueling” scientists triggers a fear response and awakens the animal within us from its slumbering mundaneness. Media meets our craving for the dramatic. We thus come to crave reactionary and oppositional positions from our news and information sources . “Vaccines are safe,” “vaccines are risky,” “red states failed to control COVID,” “CDC failed to control COVID,” “masks work,” “masks don’t work.”

To date, the scientific data on masks is complicated. So, why do pandemic scientists promote yes or no positions? The answer has to do with two types of selection. First is the selection of pandemic scientists to be the faces of science in the media. A scientist who details the salient evidence on masks, methodically and thoroughly, is unlikely to fit well on either FOX or CNN, and would likely not be invited back on air.

The second selection is the choice media outlets make of which side of the scientist to bring out. Consider the following questions:

(1) Can you tell us about the current evidence on the role of masks in COVID transmission?

(2) So what do you think about Fauci’s position on masks?

The first is an invitation to relate evidence and expertise; the second is an invitation to throw a punch. Media outlets select scientists who take strong positions and select to have them answer type-II questions. These two types of selection then generate the “science at war” narrative.

This narrative has been corrosive to the scientific community, and to the communities that we serve. The growing partisan divide over trust in science in the time of COVID-19 can be easily traced to participation of scientists in adversarial media narratives. And scientists returned to the media again and again and again—the appeal seems so seductive. The pandemic has offered more limelight opportunities to toil-in-the-dark scientists than ever before. And more of them agreed to partner with the media than ever before.

Media participation has important virtues. It allows information-hungry consumers ready access to expertise. At a time of great uncertainty, media serves an important function in making new information public. Especially in a time of crisis, it can be reassuring to hear from experts who can help make sense of a new and scary development.

Even so, the media is a megaphone for disagreement. Beyond communicating with the public, scientists are deepening an already polarized situation. And we are not contributing to trust by agreeing to partake in oversimplified and commonly nonscientific narratives. Instead, we are taking part in an adversarial dynamic that fails to reflect the care, clarity, and curiosity of science.

Many broadcast and print media outlets have already yielded to the gods of partisanship. Their willingness to compromise fact for faction has been amply described. Social media—especially Twitter—is also a form of acid that corrodes the ability of science to function.

Twitter promotes people with the capacity for attention-grabbing posts who are driven to engage in argumentative and polarizing debate. Scientists who are thus promoted are effective tools for social media. They are motivated by attention and conflict, abundantly capable, and intelligent to boot. Statements that are more adversarial and confrontational garner more attention. Our intrinsic reward systems get hijacked and our attention is captured by the appearance of conflict and socially charged exchanges.

Social media also has redeeming qualities for science—sharing information rapidly, connecting scientists across the world, and creating scientific communities, to name a few. But the system is not designed for cautious and measured scientific exchanges. By aligning the creation of attention-grabbing content with social reward mechanisms, social media amplifies claims like “This research is idiotic,” or “That is a heroic study.”

Science does not determine idiocy or heroism. Science proceeds incrementally, with trials and tribulations, answering a growing number of specific empirical questions. Most scientists work on narrow research programs. Findings are set forth with care relative to conventional benchmarks defined in the field. The Twitterverse is designed to foil measured and precise exposition.

During the months we barely saw one another and missed out on regular reminders of each other’s nuanced positions, the media brought scientists into its fold. The veneer of credentials and “objectivity” was used to further dueling narratives. Often these narratives capture a feeling in the air, but scientists were exploited to craft nonscientific clickbait. The New York Times and Fox News are more or less equally complicit in excavating the hearts of scientists for business purposes. And we allowed it to happen, again and again.

The ideal scientist comes into her trade with a sense of wonder, curiosity, openness, and marvel at what nature has to show us. The corruption of scientific norms is a collective manifestation of the erosion of many scientists’ spirits. Many—I would venture most—scientists hold that spirit as a personal ideal. Its erosion happens when science gets blended with social, economic, and psychological forces that exploit the human being inside the scientist, and none more strongly than the media with its fondness for conflict, strife, and black-or-white-ism.

I am here as a scientist longing for the core of science. It is up to each of us to uphold the scientific spirit in the face of the lure of ideology, fame, ego, and gain. For science to thrive, scientists have to continually renew their vows to its ideals and standards. An exodus of scientists from Twitter, CNN, Fox, and The New York Times would reduce the temptation to stray. What broadcast, print, and social media do is beyond our control, but we do not have to play in their arena. We can change the direction of our domain if we nurture scientific wonder, curiosity, and uncertainty.

Dr. Eran Bendavid is associate professor of medicine and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.