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Talking Science With Holden Thorp

Holden Thorp
Washington University in St Louis

Recent polls have shown that a strong majority of Americans trust the most prominent scientists during this pandemic, like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx.

Their ability to communicate complicated scientific topics has helped them gain the public trust, for the most part. But that doesn't mean there's not a lot of misinformation put out every day; some of it extremely harmful.

In the latest episode of Tested, host Dave DeWitt spoke with Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science, one of the leading scientific journals in the world, about the importance of effective science communication. Before he served in his current role, Thorp was a chemist, the provost at Washington University in St. Louis, and the chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dave DeWitt: Every scientist, on some level, also has to be a science communicator. But your role now, as editor-in-chief of Science, is different. How do you approach this responsibility – to communicate science to multiple audiences - differently than you did in your previous roles as a researcher/faculty member, and administrator?

Holden Thorp: Pre-coronavirus, we really viewed our audience as being mostly other scientists. We're a general science journal and we have news. And the way we think about what is important is: What is something that a researcher who isn't in the specific field of the research article or the news story, what would they be interested in? And that's kind of where we see our place in the continuum of publications. I think now with Coronavirus, we have an additional challenge in that people are consuming science and scientific research in so many new ways.

We also view our role as being very important and saying these are the things that are out there that we have subjected to our peer-review process, and we're willing to put our weight behind and our stamp on. That is very important right now, because there are a lot of things that are being released in the media or un-reviewed papers that go on things we call pre-print servers, that people are taking and running with, and, in our view, most of the time prematurely.

DeWitt: We all watch the White House briefings and see two renowned scientists – Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci – walking an impossible tightrope between science and political realities. What do you see when you watch them?

Thorp: I see two people in agony. I mean, I think that they're in a very, very difficult situation. They are trying to stay there because we need some scientists at the table, and if either of them were asked to leave, I'm not sure anyone would be invited to take their place. So we're very reliant on them. I have voiced strong support for both of them. I think Dr. Birx is having a hard time. She's being asked to support a lot of Trump's statements or kind of walk them back or put them in context. And I feel for her. There's part of me that wants her to drop the mic and walk out, but there are consequences. So, at this point, we kind of have to trust her judgment that she's doing the right things to stay there and help. But it's a very challenging position that they're in.

DeWitt: Rush Limbaugh calls government, academia, science and media the "four corners of deceit" – you've now held prominent positions in three of those fields. How hard is it to advocate for the importance of scientific research in a country where Limbaugh's views are now so widely held, and held so strongly by the president?

Thorp: The good news is that if you look at surveys from Pew or somebody like that, you'll see strong support for science is still there in both parties. But it's very soft on the Republican side. Because once you start to dig into it, you find that people trust their doctor and they're grateful for medical care, but then they want to ignore us on climate change or vaccines or something like this. So that's a constant struggle.

It's frankly a struggle that's been there for decades. If you look at the environment, for example, the Nixon administration were environmentalists; Barry Goldwater was a very big environmentalist. And then when Reagan became president, data became available showing that there was a political advantage in attacking science, and that has been unfortunate.

Dave: What do you say to regular people – who aren't doctors or scientists – to give them hope that we will get through this?

Thorp: I'm extremely hopeful. I see most of the science before it goes to wherever it goes. So when you see somebody on CNN talking, most of the time I've looked at whatever it is that they're talking about.

The rate at which we're conquering this is unprecedented. The description of the virus happened starting in January. By the middle of February, we had the structure of the spike protein. Now we have the structures of most of the important proteins and the virus. The epidemiology has moved very quickly.

I mean, you might remember at the beginning of this, there was a lot of focus on handshaking and the virus spreading on surfaces. We now know the virus mostly spreads through the air, which is why the masks are so important. And I think we're learning who experiences severe disease, but we're at the early stages of that.

And then as we're talking about a lot of these therapeutic approaches are moving along quite quickly, I'm optimistic that we'll get an antibody that binds to the spike protein and helps us manage the disease. That's probably the thing that could happen the fastest. And the vaccine development is again, going the fastest it's ever gone. There are lots of political and logistical challenges with the vaccine, but I'm hopeful that they'll get worked out. So I believe science will conquer this.

I know there are a lot of people hurting financially. And so these are complicated questions as to how we reopen. But if everybody would wear their mask, and maybe even a face shield, I know it's kind of an awkward thing to wear, but if you have a mask and a shield, you're in pretty good shape. And if you're outside, you're even better.

So as we reopen, if people would wear masks and face shields and stay outside as much as they could, we've got an excellent chance of getting things going again here while we continue to buy time for the scientists to do our thing.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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