We are all familiar with the distorting process by which genuine science is translated into clickworthy headlines. It is trivial enough when the local news anchor turns to say “science has shown” that “chocolate cures incontinence,” or whatever. But now lives and public policy hinge on the science-to-news translation process, often done by the scientists themselves.
Let’s pause to reflect on the translation process. How does it work? And what additional challenges does the pandemic present for it?
As translators of all varieties know, sacrifices must be made. In my biblical studies days I remember a scholar saying that reading scripture in translation is like watching a color movie in black and white. Even that statement itself is a translation of sorts for people who have not experienced reading texts in both the original language and translation. I have argued that nearly all public philosophy is translation, and many well meaning academicians lament the challenge of preserving accuracy in their attempt to bring wisdom to the masses.
What about the challenges in public science? This is what demands most reflection right now. It is generally not pressing for people to know the underlying mechanisms of a physical phenomenon or the methods by which it was discovered and understood. They need to know what bearing it has on their lives—how it should inform their choices. Think about doctors informing patients of a diagnosis. The doctors translate, with analogies and non-scientific references (though with enough hard science to communicate seriousness and authority), in a way that leaves out a multitude of details. How does the doctor decide which details to include and exclude?
The question leads us to recognize that values govern the translation process. Science doesn’t translate itself. The expert has an estimation of their audience and an understanding of why the audience needs information. The expert can then take a detail, question whether the audience needs it for the relevant purposes, and then make a judgment on whether and how to include it. It is not enough to say that the expert wants to be understood. Rather, they want to be understood because they find themselves in a situation in which the information is practically important to a nonexpert. A part of the practical importance is that the wellbeing of the nonexpert hinges both on the expert’s knowledge and on their ability to communicate the knowledge effectively. The situation is one in which the nonexpert cannot take a seminar; they cannot become an expert.
Even with the value in place, the translation does not immediately appear. The judgment of whether a detail is important for the situation is fraught with difficulties. Details do not exist in isolation. They relate to each other. To know one you might need to know a host of others—some of which might appear irrelevant when considered on their own. How would you explain the “flatten the curve” concept, with all the details it involves? It is incumbent on the expert to construct a mini-system of approachable scientific knowledge for someone. Building a house is far more than collecting the necessary materials. You must assemble them in an ordered way.
I mentioned that an occasion for translation is a situation of practical importance, like the diagnosis of a disease. Often understanding the practical importance of the situation, or the situation itself, requires some expert knowledge. Since people typically understand quite well that their health is important and that it is vital for them to understand what a doctor is saying, perhaps a different example better illustrates the point. Global warming is an issue that includes systematic relations among many details. Some are about the physical processes that cause warming. Some are about the effects that warming will have on practical realities that humans deem important, like having Miami exist. As a result, the translation process of public science on global warming involves explaining both what is happening and why people should care.
We could list more of the challenges that are inherent to public science. But let us turn to coronavirus.
As many political leaders display their scientific ignorance, we turn to scientists like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx for hope. We are watching them do public science, navigating the challenges of translation. Unfortunately for them and us, they are facing even more difficulties. What are they?
The novelty and scope of the disease is a dangerous combination. It means that we face an urgent and massive public health crisis caused by something that scientists don’t yet fully understand. The crisis means that we all grasp in broad terms the practical importance of our situation. We are at least pausing to wonder whether we should go on a run or hug a friend. But we don’t understand the underlying physical phenomena that should dictate how we act. Thus we look to translations.
Unfortunately, understanding a new strain of coronavirus is a challenge of its own, even without an attendant health crisis. So a possible and not inaccurate translation that a scientist might offer is: “Yeah, we haven’t figured this out yet. So good luck.” Now, obviously no scientist would say this on a platform. But why not? We should notice that it is not because of the science of the underlying physical phenomena. It is because of the values and understanding of the practical reality that the scientist brings to the translation process. The scientist is aware of the pressing health crisis (a topic likely outside of their expertise), and they know it demands from them some actionable, scientifically responsible information. So they will share what the scientists do know, what is likely true, and err on the side of caution. Ergo: “Wash your hands.” Good general advice that couldn’t hurt.
What we are witnessing is scientists’ attempt to navigate between the exigencies of a public crisis and the values that guide science, like epistemic humility, patience, and thorough and repeated experimentation. Should they wait longer to speak, until they have a firmer systematic understanding of the disease? The delay could cost lives, but so could impetuous advice. Because of the particular combination of challenges in our current case, the quality of public science cannot be judged solely by how well it captures the truths of academic science but also by how well it encourages responsible practical action among nonexperts.
Now more than ever the political dimensions of the translation process are shining forth.
To add another dimension to the difficulties faced by public scientists, with respect to the pandemic, the gap between political policy and expert scientific advice is perhaps the narrowest it has been in recent memory. For all intents and purposes, some epidemiologists are making public policy. This enables us to make a couple points. First, ever more important are the translations we don’t see—what the scientists say to nonexpert elected officials. Even if there were a perfect understanding of coronavirus it would be moot to our practical reality without political leaders who are willing to listen to, amplify, and take guidance from the translators. Thus the scientists must find ways to be persuasive to the leaders (something that is also likely outside of their expertise). There needs to be trust. This introduces a new set of values that determine the translation process.
Second, once the scientist has the receptive ear of a leader, they must be aware that how they chose to communicate the physical phenomenon of a particular disease will result in policies that ripple through all areas of life—economic, social, governmental, international, familial, religious, environmental, personal, educational, existential, you name it. The translation cannot simply be about how a disease spreads. The values that guide the translation must be ones that account for how a translation simply about how a disease spreads also contains an indefinite amount of societal ramifications, few of which they understand and none of which are their expertise.
Perhaps in your free time, good reader, you can carry on in my spirit and list more challenges. I have merely scratched the surface. Still left to explore is how even experts rely on translations from experts in other fields. My most basic claim is that it is important, especially now, for us to reflect carefully on how the translation process works. We are surrounded by it. Lives depend on it.
Our job as nonexperts—the job of understanding the translations presented to us—gets easier when we have a better grasp of the challenges faced by public scientists.