80,000 Hours Podcast

#76 - Tara Kirk Sell on misinformation, who's done well and badly, & what to reopen first

80,000 Hours Podcast

Amid a rising COVID-19 death toll, and looming economic disaster, we’ve been looking for good news — and one thing we're especially thankful for is the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (CHS).

CHS focuses on protecting us from major biological, chemical or nuclear disasters, through research that informs governments around the world. While this pandemic surprised many, just last October the Center ran a simulation of a 'new coronavirus' scenario to identify weaknesses in our ability to quickly respond. Their expertise has given them a key role in figuring out how to fight COVID-19.

Today’s guest, Dr Tara Kirk Sell, did her PhD in policy and communication during disease outbreaks, and has worked at CHS for 11 years on a range of important projects.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

Last year she was a leader on Collective Intelligence for Disease Prediction, designed to sound the alarm about upcoming pandemics before others are paying attention.

Incredibly, the project almost closed in December, with COVID-19 just starting to spread around the world — but received new funding that allowed the project to respond quickly to the emerging disease.

She also contributed to a recent report attempting to explain the risks of specific types of activities resuming when COVID-19 lockdowns end.

We can't achieve zero risk — so differentiating activities on a spectrum is crucial. Choosing wisely can help us lead more normal lives without reviving the pandemic.

Dance clubs will have to stay closed, but hairdressers can adapt to minimise transmission, and Tara, who happens to be an Olympic silver-medalist in swimming, suggests outdoor non-contact sports could resume soon without much risk.

Her latest project deals with the challenge of misinformation during disease outbreaks.

Analysing the Ebola communication crisis of 2014, they found that even trained coders with public health expertise sometimes needed help to distinguish between true and misleading tweets — showing the danger of a continued lack of definitive information surrounding a virus and how it’s transmitted.

The challenge for governments is not simple. If they acknowledge how much they don't know, people may look elsewhere for guidance. But if they pretend to know things they don't, the result can be a huge loss of trust.

Despite their intense focus on COVID-19, researchers at CHS know that this is no one-off event. Many aspects of our collective response this time around have been alarmingly poor, and it won’t be long before Tara and her colleagues need to turn their mind to next time.

You can now donate to CHS through Effective Altruism Funds. Donations made through EA Funds are tax-deductible in the US, the UK, and the Netherlands.

Tara and Rob also discuss:

• Who has overperformed and underperformed expectations during COVID-19?
• Whe are people right to mistrust authorities?
• The media’s responsibility to be right
• What policy changes should be prioritised for next time
• Should we prepare for future pandemic while the COVID-19 is still going?
• The importance of keeping non-COVID health problems in mind
• The psychological difference between staying home voluntarily and being forced to
• Mistakes that we in the general public might be making
• Emerging technologies with the potential to reduce global catastrophic biological risks

Get this episode by subscribing: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the linked transcript.

Producer: Keiran Harris. 
 Audio mastering: Ben Cordell. 
 Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

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