SAR, R0, these are all terms that became part of the pop culture lexicon during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, because they were used in simplistic fashion they were more helpful for those engaged in wedge politics than the public.

Part of the problem can be laid at the feet of social media. COVID-19 was the third coronavirus pandemic of the last 17 years but it was the first to truly spread worldwide and have so much concern that the country where it originated created a campaign of disinformation, and even got the World Health Organisation to be complicit. And it all happened in real time on social media.

That left the pandemic wide open for everyone with an agenda. Want to blame COVID-19 on climate change? Easy, because science journalists this century are so poorly trained they produce articles based on correlation, food frequency questionnaires, and computer simulations and think that is the same as actual science. We had similar poor framing about land use changes, which were also "linked" to the spread.

If you wouldn't cite an expert in astrology in a science article, you also should not cite someone who put together a computer simulation in a week.

That last one is the subject of a new analysis to create a case study of the pitfalls of science communication when no critical thinking is used. The problem remains suggesting causality when data show nothing of the kind. It is no different in food and chemicals, where environmentalists tout "the presence" of some chemical and political allies in journalism repeat it as meaning harm.(1) 

Yet food hysteria is too entrenched to be changed directly. The most popular food journalists on Twitter are skeptical of science yet embrace every fad alternative without any thought at all. COVID-19, though, can force the change journalists who cover agriculture ordinarily would not.

The notion of zoonotic spillover has some truthiness, just like one molecule of a chemical in 160 Olymipic swimming pools means it does have a harmful something - but anyone who understands the issues realizes it's not valid. Unfortunately, zoonotic spillover has no common sense equivalent like "the dose makes the poison" so it was open season on the public when 53% of peer-reviewed papers  "suggested" causality between zoonotic disease and agriculture or apartment buildings. Once half of peer-reviewed papers made the supernatural claim, 78% of secondary papers did. Then suddenly we had a "growing body of evidence" promoted by elites in environmental groups, who got journalists to repeat it.

Yes, there is a peer-review problem, the reason the New York Times endorses acupuncture and other unproven wellness alternatives to medicine is because those practitioners peer-review themselves the same way International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences peer-review their own papers and those of their allies. But journalists are supposed to be the Fourth Estate, and protection against such manipulation - not complicit because it sounds like progressive good works.

We're all in the communications business, and I am all for making it as simple as it can be, but blindly repeating claims by experts who may not be that at all because they are talking about science that is in the public eye did a huge disservice to the credibility of scientists and journalists.

They eroded trust. It's why journalists today have the same level of credibility among the public as lawyers and politicians. The good news is that this is entirely fixable. COVID-19 coverage shows the roadmap to get back to being trusted guides for the public, rather than cheerleaders for any claim that someone with authority makes.


(1) Seriously, every year the Environmental Working Group's "dirty dozen" list is promoted by journalists who want to be regarded seriously inside corporate media, when everyone with any common sense knows their data cones from the US government - and organic food lobbyists have successfully resisted efforts to have their pesticides included in government totals. California is the only state that forces organic pesticide usage to be documented and it data show organic requires 6X the total of chemicals used for conventional food.  EWG literally does no research of any kind, they republish government data available to all - but make it sound like they are revealing a crisis when their donors are still exempted by lobbyists for a $120 billion industry. At least until a Republican who understands agriculture gets back into the White House.