How to See Past Coronavirus Hype

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds.Today's piece comes from Gemma Milne, tech and science writer and author of 'Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It'.



We're living in confusing times. Every day there seems to be new updates, new numbers, new problems, new think-pieces - it's understandable that many of us feel overwhelmed by the news and that conspiracy theories are gaining ground.


It's easy to get caught up in media frenzy around the pandemic, so here are a few tips and suggested reading for anyone looking to find some clarity right now:


1) Pause


When you read something, remember that the fact that you have stumbled upon it is a result of it making its way through the mountains of information online, cutting through everything else out there, and stopping you from scrolling in your tracks. It is hype's job to do that - to capture your attention. That is its only job. The simple bombastic absolutist line that got you to read it is not the full story. So when you are captured by something, pause and remember this. Remember that a headline is never the full story. Ponder who wrote it and why they wrote it. Consider what the emotions are it played on to get you to pay attention. Pause, and take into account the context in which the narrative exists - don't take the initial response you have as the definite correct one. Pause.


2) Accept Uncertainty


There is not a simple solution to the pandemic. And anyone who tells you there is, is using hyped-up narratives. The reason there are so many hyped-up simple-sounding narratives, though, is because the public is demanding simple answers. If we keep asking for simple answers, the media and government will keep trying to give us them, no matter how ill-informed they are. We must all try to accept the fact that right now things are difficult to explain, that the situation is changing rapidly, and that things such as 'exit strategies' simply might not yet exist and that sharing them would do more damage than good - especially if those who then read them don't read them thoroughly and in context. It's a big ask, I know, but demanding simple answers right now is harmful; we must be better at accepting uncertainty.


3) Think 'Systems' not 'Solutions'


Anyone who has been to a tech conference will be familiar with the startup pitch: it begins with an explanation of a huge societal problem, with stats and figures and maybe a personal story ('this is Amy, she is 5 years old...'). Next comes the explanation of why it's not yet solved, and the 'if only we could just do X'; swiftly followed with the 'oh look we've done it!' reveal of the company's technology, business plan and plead for funding. Sometimes this is a fair way of thinking about 'fixing things' but when we're considering issues that span countries, industries and people of all walks of life, we cannot boil down to one single root problem in need of a solution. We must consider the interconnectedness, interdependency and fragility of systems - and THEN consider the multitude of issues inherent in each and what the knock-on effects are of 'solving' one of those problems are on the others. An example: Trump's 'solution' of using hydroxychloroquine, and his promotion of it, led to a shortage of the drug for those with conditions which have actually been proven to benefit from its usage - lupus and rhuematoid arthritis. Getting on top of the coronavirus pandemic means thinking in systems, not in siloed solutions.


4) Read Ed Yong's piece in The Atlantic


It's the best piece I've seen on coronavirus and honestly I think the world would be a better place if everyone gave it a read. Get yourself a cup of tea, make it full screen and turn off notifications so you can focus on just this for 5-10 minutes (it really doesn't take longer to read it).


Stay safe.


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