Tuesday, February 27 2024

Ignacio López-Goñi is a professor of microbiology and virology at the
University of Navarra (Spain) and a well-known scientific popularizer. He
is also the author of the short, powerful essay Preparados para la próxima pandemia (“Prepared for the next
pandemic,” published by Destino in Spanish), in which he analyzes what led
to the crisis caused by COVID-19 and tries to give suggestions that can
prepare us for a future emergency.

According to the author, the pandemic has shown us how science works: we ask it to provide us with certainty, to
develop a vaccine in record time – while, for years, not enough was
invested in research. Moreover, it is important to respect the pace of
science and know how to communicate well about it.

Can a Virus Really Change the World?

This is the question posed at the beginning of the book. It seems
impossible that a “little thing”, ten thousand times smaller than a
millimeter, could cause a pandemic that has changed people’s daily lives
all across the globe, claiming millions of victims and causing economic
damage of epochal proportions… and it’s not even over!

Looking back on well-known examples, the author reminds us that there have
been many pandemics that have affected societal development throughout
history. So, it was to be expected that sooner or later it would happen
again. In fact, for some time the WHO has been talking about a new disease
that could result in a terrible pandemic. It’s as if we are living the
fairytale The Boy Who Cried Wolf; we were warned, but we didn’t
believe it. If history should repeat itself, we must be able to deal with
another pandemic. How can we do that?

The Solution Comes from Science Not Scientism

Never before have we had such advanced technological and scientific
resources. At the same time, however, we must critically observe science –
especially pseudoscience – and we need to review the communication of
science in particular. In just a brief time, thousands of scientific
articles have been published regarding Covid-19, and numerous vaccines and
therapeutic treatments for the novel virus have been released. This, while
certainly positive, covers up something dangerous. Scientists have found
themselves having to provide answers quickly, keeping up with today’s
society that asks for immediate answers; but science takes time! In order
for a hypothesis to be valid and to reach an acceptable – and even accepted
– conclusion, it is necessary for the results to return the same many times
in different places, with as many patients as possible.


Communicating Science in Times of Crisis: Between Thirst for Answers
and Infodemia

The attempt to appease the public has led to the publication of articles
whose contents have not yet been peer-reviewed, as authentic scientific
research requires. We have seen a serious communication problem, and we
have found ourselves not only in the midst of a pandemic but also in the
midst of an “infodemic.” While so much valuable information has emerged, so
too has misinformation, misinterpretations, and fake news. The media, along
with social networks, have played a major role in the dissemination of
these articles that have been read by the general public, causing false
alarms, false certainties, panic, and anxiety.

The impression has been that we are lost to conformity and the race for
approval by the general public. Scientific popularization is certainly very
important; it is perfectly fine that we want to communicate scientific
findings not only to scientists but to the entire public. This would help
to strengthen society’s trust in authorities and science. However, we must
not lose sight of the fact that scientific knowledge cannot keep up with
the media, which push many headlines immediately. Front page news printed
today is already old news by tomorrow. Furthermore, maybe it was not even
correct information but biased propaganda from self-interested sources,
pharmaceutical advertising passed off as “information,” rambling hypotheses
of sick minds, and a long list of deceptions as old as the hills.

An Ethical Choice in Communicating Science

The book ends with an interesting reflection on the relationship between
science and ethics. In particular, it stresses that the speed of scientific
progress must not go against the fundamental ethical principle of doing
good and avoiding evil, acting according to justice, fairness, and honesty,
putting the common good before one’s own interest, with respect for human
dignity.

And this also concerns the media, which must not be blinded by the frenzy
to increase audience numbers, but must be moved by the essential values of
truthfulness and transparency, so as not to abuse their position of power.

It is time to realize that our actions have widespread consequences, that
we are part of a whole, and that we must act in accordance with the greater
good of the planet. It is also time to understand that science serves
mankind and other living things, so it is essential to invest in it to be
prepared for future pandemics. The future of the pandemic depends on our
behavior: this must be a reason to be hopeful!

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