When “Simon Says…”” became “Science Says…”, and Other Children’s Games Invented During Pandemics

I haven’t been listening to the science as much as I’ve been listening for it; I rarely hear it, these days. Even though my fluency in it is still growing as I train as a resident physician, I speak it well enough to know it when I hear it. It’s a language that’s spoken serenely to others and not at them through a megaphone. It woos through melodic expression of theory and probability; it does not terrify with absolute dicta harshly screamed. It’s harmonious, not dissonant. It evolves into ever greater expression as older vocabulary, grammar and syntax are falsified and modified, but always according to a more profound understanding of how the world works and not because a tyrant arbitrarily says so.

The former results from patient and meticulous labour in unknown laboratories and eventually trickles its way into sophisticated and erudite publications. The latter results from adherence to unbridled passion and explodes onto our eyes through social media and into our ears through the evening news.

“The science says keep two meters apart.”

Well, not exactly.

The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University published a paper that says “a one-size-fits-all 2-metre social distancing rule is not consistent with the underlying science of exhalations and indoor air. Such rules are based on an over-simplistic picture of viral transfer, which assume a clear dichotomy between large droplets and small airborne droplets emitted in isolation without accounting for the exhaled air. The reality involves a continuum of droplet sizes and an important role of the exhaled air that carries them.”

The article goes on to say that “safe social distancing” is multifactorial and should factor in things such as “indoor versus outdoor settings, air ventilation, wearing of PPE [(personal protective equipment)] including facemasks, effectiveness and type of cleaning measures, individual susceptibility to infection, and activities that project airborne particles over greater distances in exhaled gas clouds, such as singing, coughing or heavy breathing.”

“The science” clearly says much, much more than to simply stand two meters apart. The reason we’re not hearing it is because it’s difficult to communicate to the public, and those charged with the task aren’t exactly motivated to have a try. In fact, they rarely are.

Politicians only and ultimately rely upon their communication skills to sway opinion, gain trust, and ensure civil obedience. According to Joseph J. Romm in Chapter Three of Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga, they enjoy their greatest success when they employ essential tools of effective rhetoric, including repetition, rhyme and straightforward vocabulary: “Simple slogans prevail in politics and so do people who speak simply.” Scientific knowledge, however, is not a prerequisite for persuasive communication, and few of our leaders trying to navigate the world through the seas of Corona actually have it.

In other words, they know how to talk without necessarily knowing what they’re talking about.

Scientists rely upon their experimental abilities to divulge knowledge about how the world works. Romm goes on to write, “Scientists are not known for being great communicators. They are trained in logic, in fact-based argument, and that makes them almost anti-rhetoricians… Like many experts, they tend to use complex jargon rather than words that can be easily understood by most people.”

In other words, they know what they’re talking about without necessarily knowing how to talk about it.

The logical solution would be to pair the two groups to form one unit capable of persuasive transmission of factual scientific knowledge, right? It certainly would be, and I’m not entirely sure which party is more culpable in failing to establish contact to prevent the many COVID public health failures that we’ve seen over the last 12 months. On the one hand, Romm assigns greater blame to his own kind when it comes to preventing global catastrophe: “I blog on climate science, solutions, and politics. I’m a physicist by training, and have been critical of scientists for not explaining, in clear language, how failure to quickly and sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions threatens human civilization.” Unfortunately, some scientists have tried to share their knowledge with the world only to have their valiant efforts suffocated by ignorant politicians.

Toronto-based newspaper The Globe and Mail published an article in early 2021 about an internal audit revealing worrisome leaks and cracks in the Public Health Agency of Canada. It explains that there has been “a critical shortage of scientific expertise to confront the pandemic” because the “agency became populated by civil servants with no background in public health” over the last couple of years. Consequently, “important information had to be ‘dumbed down’ before it was moved up the chain of command, while early warnings about the urgency of the outbreak [of COVID-19] were shrugged off or ignored by directors within the department.” Many actual experts left in frustration because despite their best efforts to equip the agency with epidemiological skills, they remained ignored. Meanwhile, the influx of unprepared civil servants from other internal and unrelated departments has continued.

Scientists don’t speak to the public because they don’t know how, they attempt to speak to politicians who don’t understand them, and politicians, in turn, share the little they think they understand in their public addresses.

The result?

“Simon says… err, I mean, the science says, ‘stay two meters apart.’”

A strange imitation game comprised of disjointed directives that leads to NBA players breathing into each other’s faces and colliding into each other’s sweaty bodies right before putting their masks on to sit down beside their teammates on the bench. And just when we’re conscious enough to begin uttering the word why, our ever-shortening attention spans are quickly sequestered by fighter jets whizzing through the sky and dump trucks honking their honks of support.

Children’s games invented during our pandemic.

Thus, an echo of my original question: What is the solution?

While scouring the Internet, painting my office floor with books, and looking through records at the library that is my hippocampus, I was finally able to pull two conceptual cue cards that have provided me with the beginning of a satisfying answer.

First, I recalled an article in The Washington Post about English majors and why we still need them in our technocratic Western world. It emphasizes the fact that as exciting as advancements in STEM fields may be, they won’t mean a thing if they can’t be translated into stories for the world to hear. Something Liberal Arts graduates can usually do far better than traditional STEM field alumni. This naturally led me to the second cue card, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. In the book’s Introduction, Pink writes: “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys. This book describes a seismic – though as yet undetected – shift now under way in much of the advanced world. We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age [which was preceded by the Industrial Age] to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age.”

I did not detect the seismic shift that Pink alludes to until I pulled those cognitive index cards. Honestly, the first time I read Pink’s book, I thought it was a nice collection of ideas that provided the artsy with false hope; I put it down without giving it any further consideration. That was six years ago. But contemplating the dire paucity of effective scientific communication during our global pandemic has made me realize that the world does, in fact, pine for the six aptitudes delineated in Pink’s tome: Design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning. Beauty and emotional engagement thwart mere functionality and enticing narratives trump logically effective arguments. Synthesis outranks analysis in fields of data that grow exponentially by the second and the demand for human touch increases as technological supply tries to replace it. People yearn for their rest and digest parasympathetic nervous systems to be activated far more than their fight or flight sympathetic ones are in our frenetic world, and in a place where all basic needs are met, nay, saturated, the heart leaps in search of something higher and deeper that allows the mind to make sense of it all.

We need people who can bridge the gap between science and communication and employ those six qualities to share the nuances of scientific discovery in a convincing manner.

Some scientists have already gotten started and are well on their way. Dr. Matteo Farinella, PhD, is a neuroscientist at Columbia University who illustrates scientific concepts in attractive and understandable ways; I’ve featured him on my blog, before, when talking about fields of untouched data. Dr. Zubin Damania, MD – better known by his colloquial moniker, ZDoggMD – is a UCSF and Stanford-trained general internist who began his YouTube career by depicting his medical system’s brokenness with musical parodies, and continued it with a podcast to provide better health-related information to the general public and to build a network of medical professionals who actually want to reform their current, clunky system.

We need more, however. We need more individuals with strong bridges between their own scientific and artistic capabilities to rightfully put science back in scientists’ hands. Rather than letting it be deteriorated by public officials’ ignorance and their flurry of unceasing performances to maintain the majority’s favour, we ought to take the time to craft the truth in novel and relevant ways.

Instead of sticking “keep two meters apart” to grocery store floors, we should take the conclusions from that Oxford paper to heart – “Social distancing is not a magic bullet to eliminate risk. A graded approach to physical distancing that reflects the individual setting, the indoor space and air condition, and other protective factors may be the best approach to reduce risk” – and produce humorous, attractive and intelligent multimedia that actually informs:

“The smaller the place,

The freer your face,

The more fragile your case,

Or the faster your pace,

The more generous you should be with your surrounding space.”

Composed by Yours Truly

Slap that whimsical rhyme onto posters and pair them with pamphlets and educational public service announcements to teach people to respectfully keep safe distances between themselves, rather than wedging weaponized gaps of anxiety and animosity between strangers.

Leaders blinded by ignorance and lust for power have had their time to lead the rest blinded by fear. With debilitation and intimidation, they’ve brought us to self-isolate in caves of intellectual darkness. Leaders enlightened by honest familiarity with the intricate workings of our surrounding world are now called to ignite the public’s light of reason with the torch of their own knowledge and guide them back out into the world as it is.

While always keeping two meters apart, of course.

Daniel

© Laughsatives ‘21

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