You are what you read

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You are what you read

I’m not saying anything too revelatory by pointing out that newspapers are echo chambers that reflect the prejudices of their readers while blocking out facts that don’t fit their world view.

That’s always been true of the political pages. But I’ve been surprised by the extent to which it has also turned out to be true of the natural sciences over the past 12 months.

Take the example of the British variant (or the English variant, if you’re Scottish; or B. if you’re above causing offence). 

Readers of the right-wing Die Welt newspaper on Thursday were given an interview with Swiss physicist Frank Scheffold, who claimed that there is no proof beyond some flimsy modelling that the British bug is any more aggressive than the out-dated strain it’s overtaking.

“Our English colleagues derived its increased infectivity from the strong increase in cases in Great Britain and then converted this assumption directly into a percentage increase in the R-value. Thus, they modelled twice, in the past and in the future. From a scientific point of view, that’s highly questionable,” Dr. Scheffold.

He pointed to the Swiss Canton of Geneva, where the R-value is still “swinging around the value of one,” despite the British variant now makes up 80 percent of all cases. 

The Swiss physicist even disparaged epidemiological modelling as “somewhat like weather forecasts” with an accuracy “at best” of a couple of weeks.

Readers of the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), meanwhile, came away with a rather different picture of the scientific facts while sipping their morning coffees.

Under the unambiguous headline “Virus mutant B.1.1.7 clearly more contagious” the left-leaning newspaper reported on a new study out of the UK which showed just what a threat the new strain poses.

“The modellers used a data set of about 150,000 genome sequences from all over the country for their investigation and were able to determine that the growth rate of the B.1.1.7 variants detected in the data set was significantly higher than that of other virus types in the first 31 days after emergence,” the SZ reported. 

While the SZ concedes that the evidence is based on modelling and not laboratory experiments, it says that the science is still clear: “For Germany, this means: If B.1.1.7 continues to spread, the number of new infections and deaths could increase even if lockdown measures remain the same.”

Of course, it is not surprising that the neo-liberal Die Welt has found a scientist who interprets the data in a way that can be read as supports an end to lockdown.

It’s equally unsurprising that the Süddeutsche Zeitung, information source of choice for teachers and doctors, has found a scientific opinion that assures them that the most cautious route is the wisest route.

Given that a value of ≥99% of readers of both publications have no training in scientific modelling, I predict that their acceptance for lockdown measures will be influenced to a degree of 80% (MOE = 50%) by reading one-sided scientific articles on the same day that said measures are announced.


Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011