Uncertainty and nuance in the COVID-19 era

Raj Bhopal and Alasdair P S Munro, in The BMJ:

Increasing use of traditional and social media by academics has brought many benefits. However, these platforms foster extreme viewpoints by design. Some, such as Twitter, value brevity over nuance, leaving no room for important qualification or uncertainty. Emotional rewards focusing on numbers of followers, likes, or onward transmissions (such as re-tweets), are best achieved by strong opinions, repeated often. Measured, nuanced, unemotional views do not go “viral.” Furthermore, the system creates groups of like minded individuals that listen only to each other.

[…] The need for influence is another contributing factor. Many academics seek influence because it is judged favourably in research excellence and impact evaluations. Some have huge followings on social media, which can help achieve rapid public involvement in research—an important aim.

However, an insatiable appetite for rapid dissemination of evidence has undermined traditional publication in peer reviewed journals. This circumvents the normal checks and balances that ensure appropriate styles of communication. Information about important developments is often made available only in brief press releases and then disseminated without adequate scrutiny through social media channels. Despite a need for speed, the covid-19 pandemic is extremely complex. Collegiate, thoughtful, and mutually respectful dialogue that fully acknowledges uncertainty is essential.

That is why the most reliable sources of information usually do not have huge followings. People don’t like nuance. Social media doesn’t like nuance.

The authors have an interesting suggestion:

Science communication, including appropriate use of social media, should be part of postgraduate training. Learning from the humanities may also help to foster a more holistic perspective on the role of science in public life and policy.

The article is a good complement to another editorial published in The BMJ: “Covid-19’s known unknowns“, by George Davey Smith, Michael Blastland, and Marcus Munafò. From the subtitle – “The more certain someone is about covid-19, the less you should trust them” – to the last paragraph, it is a great read.

In the “science” of covid-19, certainties seem to be everywhere. Commentators on every side—academic, practitioner, old media or new—apparently know exactly what’s going on and exactly what to do about it.


[W]e are thinking of the many rational people with scientific credentials making assertive public pronouncements on covid-19 who seem to suggest there can be no legitimate grounds for disagreeing with them. If you do, they might imply, it’s probably because you’re funded by dark forces or vested interests, you’re not evidence based, you’re morally blind to the harm you would do, you’re ideologically driven (but I’m objective), you think money matters more than lives, your ideas are a dangerous fantasy . . . . On they go, duelling certitudes in full view of a public desperate for simple answers and clarity—even when, unfortunately, these may not exist.


Views polarise alongside the increasing certainty with which they are expressed, as if we are in a trench war where giving an inch risks losing a mile


Acknowledging uncertainty a little more might improve not only the atmosphere of the debate and the science, but also public trust. If we publicly bet the reputational ranch on one answer, how open minded can we be when the evidence changes?


Similarly, to allege that anyone who speaks of uncertainty is a “merchant of doubt” or exposes science to attack from these quarters, is to concede vital scientific ground by implying that only certainty will do. Generally, and particularly in the context of covid-19, certitude is the obverse of knowledge.


When deciding whom to listen to in the covid-19 era, we should respect those who respect uncertainty, and listen in particular to those who acknowledge conflicting evidence on even their most strongly held views. Commentators who are utterly consistent, and see whatever new data or situation emerge through the lens of their pre-existing views—be it “Let it rip” or “Zero covid now”—would fail this test.

It was published in October, and it still holds true. I don’t think there have been any improvements in this regard. Actually, things have probably gotten worse.