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!