It’s been an interesting year so far, 2020. We – as a nation, as a global tribe, as a species – find ourselves on the front lines of what feels like the zombie apocalypse, or at least a documentary version of the Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion. It seems like every day brings worse news, and you could be forgiven if you thought that many national governments got caught flat-footed by the virus that’s led to a global pandemic.
Since my chosen role here on the PEN blog, and pretty much everywhere else, is as a reporter-analyst who works to break complex, sometimes scary, topics into digestible nuggets, this month I’ll highlight some of the sources and experts I rely on to keep me from Panic City in our current pandemic.
As a journalist, I learned the two-source confirmation rule, where a fact isn’t verified until two sources confirm it. I still use that rule today, but it can be challenging with the tsunami of “facts” being presented – often contradicting each other – in a fluid situation full of uncertainty. Like, say, a global pandemic.
Uncertainty is something the human brain is wired to avoid, with our most basic cognitive functions, the ones that have been in human brains since early Cro Magnon times, set to make quick decisions on threats. Slowly assessing information is most certainly not a basic human function, since that saber-toothed tiger – or microscopic virus – is coming our way. Which makes processing a flood of information about inbound threats challenging, and fact-checking both difficult, and deeply necessary.
With all that said, here’s my list of trusted sources:
- Eric Perakslis – Eric is a former FDA Chief Scientist, now a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University. He’s fought ebola on the ground in Africa, working with MSF. His input on cybersecurity, case surveillance, epidemic management, and common sense in all of the above is an anchor point for my understanding of what’s going on, and what might be on deck next.
- Helen Branswell – Helen works the infectious diseases beat for STAT News. She fact checks like a pro, since she is one. STAT and Helen are reliable sources for news about COVID19.
- Eric Topol (I guess I like guys named Eric?) – This Eric is a cardiologist, scientist, and writer who’s speed-reading the latest emerging science on COVID19, and sharing it with his take on what it means for fighting the pandemic. He shares PDFs and images of paywalled articles, which is a big bonus.
- Marc Lipsitch – Marc is a Harvard epidemiologist who models infectious diseases for a living as director of Harvard Chan Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics (CCDD) – I use his Twitter feed as a reality check on any breaking news about coronavirus models.
- Zeynep Tufekci – Zeynep has been on or near the front lines of social change around the world in her role as a sociologist focused on the interaction of humans and tech, and how that impacts human behavior, particularly in groups. Her book Twitter and Tear Gas: the Power and Fragility of Networked Protest is a great read, too, for while you’re cooped up in our physically-distancing times. Her take on group-think and group-behave is illuminating.
- Charlie Warzel – a longtime information war correspondent, Charlie ran the Infowarzel channel at Buzzfeed before moving to the New York Times opinion pages, still covering the information/disinformation/misinformation pandemic that was drowning us … until an actual pandemic showed up, making that disinformation and misinformation even more deadly to human life.
- Farzad Mostashari – an MD and health data interoperability evangelist, Farzad led national efforts at creating interoperable health data infrastructure at HHS under the Obama administration, then founded a tech company that helps primary care practices leverage their data for better patient care. Public health emergencies require ALL the data be shared – Farzad points out the gaps.
- Snopes’ Coronavirus Collection – Snopes has been a great resource for figuring out if the latest OMG headline(s) about anything were true, false, or somewhere in between. They’ve set up a collection of resources on their site that’s a living project, with new information added as it happens.
As a bonus-round addition, here’s something just for patient communities:
This list is not exhaustive, or comprehensive. It’s my sanity clause in this challenging time – I encourage you to use it, share it, and add to it (hit me up on Twitter, my handle is @MightyCasey). The key is to find sources of scientific, factual truth, not noise.
And for those times when you just-can’t-even with inbound news, you can check out the PEN Activity Guide for a mental break.
Stay safe. Stay well. Wash your hands. And wear a mask if you go out.
Casey Quinlan covered her share of medical stories as a TV news field producer, and used healthcare as part of her observational comedy set as a standup comic. So when she got a breast cancer diagnosis five days before Christmas in 2007, she used her research, communication, and comedy skills to navigate treatment, and wrote “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” about managing medical care, and the importance of health literate self-advocacy. In addition to her ongoing work as a journalist, she’s a popular speaker and thought leader on healthcare system transformation from the ground up.