The Alarmist: Is One of the Pandemic’s Loudest Scientific Voices Helping or Hurting Public Health?

AlexSecret

How should scientists balance the need to raise the alarm about a health threat with the complexity and methodical pace of research required to understand that threat? How do you weigh potential harm done versus good achieved when deciding what to tell a frightened public? These aren’t new questions, but in 2020, they’ve come into sharp focus. No one embodies them more fully than scientist Eric Feigl-Ding, a Twitter sensation for his urgent threads about the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps you’ve read some of his viral tweets — the most famous ones begin with phrases like “BLOODY HELL” and “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.” In less than a year, his following has grown from 2,000 to more than 250,000 Twitter users. Jane C. Hu profiles Feigl-Ding for Undark, asking whether he’s the town crier the internet needs or just another purveyor of disinformation:

Even when his public exclamations are technically accurate, Feigl-Ding’s critics suggest that they too often invite misinterpretations. In a thread about the first study of a COVID-19 outbreak on an airplane, for example, Feigl-Ding failed to mention the important caveat that researchers suspected all but one case occurred before people got on the airplane. In another, Feigl-Ding appeared to summarize a Washington Post piece on a coronavirus mutation, but omitted crucial phrases—including the fact that just one of the five mentioned studies was peer-reviewed. It wasn’t until the sixth tweet in the thread that Feigl-Ding mentioned the important detail that the “worrisome” mutation doesn’t appear to make people sicker, though it could make the virus more contagious.

To Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia University virologist, this represents a pattern. “[T]his is his MO,” she wrote in an email. “He tweets something sensational and out of context, buries any caveats further down-thread, and watches the clicks and [retweets] roll in.”

Such critiques of Feigl-Ding’s particular brand of COVID-19 commentary are by no means new, and previous articles—in The Atlantic as far back as January, for example, New York Magazine’s Intelligencer in March, the Chronicle of Higher Education in April, and in The Daily Beast in May — have explored questions about his expertise in epidemiology (his focus prior to COVID-19 was on nutrition) and whether his approach to public health communication is appropriate or alarmist. But as his influence has grown, and as the pandemic enters a much more worrying phase, critics have continued to debate whether Feigl-Ding, for all his enthusiasms, is doing more harm than good. Some complain that Feigl-Ding’s army of followers can be hateful when other scientists publicly disagree with his tweets. Others say that Feigl-Ding himself has been known to privately message his critics—a tack that some found unwelcome.

For his part, though, Feigl-Ding says many of his critics’ disagreements with him have come down to a difference in style. “Sometimes it’s a matter of a philosophical approach about tone: Should I say ‘whoa’ or ‘wow?’” he said

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