From Galileo to Darwin, scientists have always had a propensity for disruption. But the speed at which discoveries are now communicated to a global audience of non-professionals thrusts the scientists under the microscope like never before.
This week, a number of eminent scientists and epidemiologists were accused of shouting fire in a crowded lab. Information on the new Omicron variant was loaded up onto international databases with little apparent awareness of its impact or interpretation. What followed was an unedifying spectacle of scientists apparently trying to outdo one another in hyperbole, for no other motive than being first. As markets plummeted across the world, scientists gave jocular interviews in which lurid forecasts of death and damnation were common.
In one Twitter thread, a UK-based scientist said the spike profile was ‘horrific’, adding that he would “take a guess that this would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about.” Another in the US tweeted, “My god — the new #B11259 variant being possibly ~500% more competitively infectious is the most staggering stat yet.”
This dramatic language sparked an immense chain reaction that travelled worldwide. The UK banned travel from 10 African countries, the Southern Hemisphere’s summer tourism plans are completely cancelled, and a worldwide feeling of panic ramped up yet again.
Despite other scientists trying to control the damage, the harm has been done. Professor Calum Semple from SAGE has stressed that “this is not a disaster, and the headlines from some of my colleagues saying this is ‘horrendous’ […] are hugely overstating the situation”. The information disseminated first is always the stickiest, and no amount of fact-checking can change someone’s mind if they feel at risk.
Two years into the pandemic and the public mood remains febrile. We look to scientists for hard facts and rationality. Yet on Monday, Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, pondered vaguely about the vaccine’s effectiveness against Omicron, “I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to… are like, ‘This is not going to be good’.” Stock markets took a major hit as a result. This period demands from scientists the same rigour over their language as should be applied to their research.
The nature of scientific speculation and the impact on global confidence is rapidly becoming almost as important a feature of the pandemic as the virus itself. We’ve built in resilience against the actual virus in our health infrastructure, but it seems we have no equivalent resilience when it comes to speculation. Perhaps the age-old proverb that ‘actions speak louder than words’ is not so true after all – scientists must realise their words are just as important as their work.