'It's a process of discovery': Advice about COVID-19 will change and that's fine, science reporter says
Science reporter Deborah Blum says it’s important to admit what you don’t know
If information and advice around COVID-19 seems to be changing, it doesn't mean scientists and journalists are making mistakes, but rather they're figuring things out, science reporter Deborah Blum says.
"It's really important to have people understand what science is. It's a process of discovery. A single study is a point in an ongoing process. It's not a necessarily an end result and it's strictly based on evidence and then confirmation of that evidence," Blum told The Current.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in over 11,000 confirmed cases in Canada and over one million globally. In recent weeks, governments and health officials have recommended and enforced rapidly evolving measures.
Information and advice on who should wear masks, how many people can safely get together and who can transmit the COVID-19 virus are examples where new recommendations have contradicted or superceded old ones.
New studies should be carefully considered
Blum, who is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says science reporters need to be careful when they see studies promoting or reporting results.
"You have to step back and say, 'But is that going to be confirmed?' Because mostly they aren't. Many, many studies come out and are overpromoted by universities and institutions. Then the next round of research shows that the findings are thinner, are not as realistic."
"I spend most of my life as a science journalist trying to critically evaluate what research says, trying to decipher what the nuances are in any study and also just trying to be really responsible about what I share and what I don't."
She cites the example of the anti-malarial drug hydroxylchloroquine, which some, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have promoted as a cure for COVID-19.
"You're now starting to see reports from different hospitals saying these aren't actually working very well," Blum said.
Canadian doctors have urged caution in prescribing these, saying their effectiveness and safety are not proven.
"Maybe it's a game-changer, maybe it's not. But the problem is that people don't hear that 'maybe it's not' for the most part. They hear the 'game-changer,'" Blum said.
Science writers are always learning
Blum says it's important for science communicators to be upfront about what they don't know.
"I think it's important to plant your feet and say 'Here's who am. I'm an ongoing student of science,' because that's what science journalists are," she said.
"I spend a lot of time researching and checking facts to try to make sure I get it right. But listen to me like a science journalist, not a scientist."
Overall, Blum said she thinks reporters have done a good job communicating information about COVID-19.
"If I put the United States in a positive way, you see that a vast majority of people are social distancing. Why are they behaving like that? Because the media is getting out the story."
As the pandemic continues and people have questions, they can turn to CBC's dedicated team of fact-checkers, who are tracking and debunking misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19.
You can email questions to COVID@cbc.ca and the team will answer as many as they can.
Written by Justin Chandler. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.