When Science Communicators FAIL (During a Pandemic)

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Okay yes, this is yet another video about COVID-19, aka “coronavirus.” Yes, I want to make videos about other things but also I am a human and I am obsessed with disasters so this is currently dominating my brain. But don’t worry, this video isn’t just about a pandemic: it’s also about fucking up as a science communicator and how to do it better.

Yes, there are various ways to fuck up and ways to recover from fucking up and some of them are better than others.

The other night I happened to see a science communicator who I follow doing a Twitter Q&A about coronavirus. I thought this was strange because this person is not a working scientist nor does he specialize in talking about health or viruses. Like, as a science generalist I am happy to talk about COVID-19 but if someone has specific questions, I would much prefer you direct them to epidemiologists who do outreach like Tara Smith or Beth Linas.

That said, the Q&A was brief and simple but at one point someone asked, “What is the most common way that (COVID-19) spreads?” The communicator responded:

“Sick person touches face.

Sick person touches a thing.

Well person touches the thing.

Well person touches face.”

That is not the most common way this virus (or any other, really) spreads. COVID-19 spreads via the droplets that fly out of a sick person’s nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze. Those droplets might go straight into your nose and mouth if you are walking by when it happens, or they might land on the person’s hand, which they then use to shake your hand. Or, they may land on a shopping cart handle, some dollar bills, or a doorknob. You might then touch one of those things, and then touch your face — specifically, your eyes, your nose, or your mouth. Those droplets will then get into your system, and you become infected, too.

That’s why masks can be effective at stopping the spread of the disease. Masks can prevent the sick person from blasting their nasty droplets everywhere, and they can also prevent the well person from breathing in those droplets. The former is more likely than the latter, which is why experts are asking that you don’t go out and buy masks if you are currently well — there are a finite number of them and they want sick people, medical personnel, and others caring for sick people in close quarters to have access to them.

The science commnicator’s wrong answer probably won’t result in too much trouble, though it was faved a thousand times and retweeted more than 100 times. It could cause someone who is sick to not worry about where they’re coughing or sneezing, or encourage that sick person to not use a mask when one could be helpful. 

Much worse, though, is the Tweet from another “scientist” that was brought to my attention by a panicked friend, who (luckily) ran it past me because it didn’t sound quite right. This scientist wrote, “Hand sanitizer is anti-bacterial 

The coronavirus is a virus 

A bacteria and a virus is not the same

Wash your hands

Sanitizer will do nothing for the coronavirus 


A scientist that is tired of this shit”

As of the making of this video, the Tweet has been up for more than a day, has been retweeted 123,000 times and faved nearly 400,000 times. This Tweet is fucking dangerous.

Hand sanitizer absolutely works on both viruses and bacteria. According to Professor James Scott, associate professor in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, so long as your hand sanitizer has about 60 or 70% alcohol, it will work by “disrupting the virus’s outer coat. For a bacterium, they work by disrupting its cell membrane. It is not a panacea, though, since certain viruses lacking an outer coat (like the one that causes cruise ship diarrhea) or spore forming bacteria (like C.difficile) are not very susceptible.” COVID-19 is in fact susceptible because it does have that outer coat.

Many, many people will find themselves quite often in situations where they should clean their hands but they cannot access soap and hot water. For those situations, they absolutely should use hand sanitizer. Like, maybe you’ve just finished grocery shopping, where you touched the shopping cart, a load of products, the money you got as change, your car doors — but you’re running late to pick up your kid from preschool. If you think hand sanitizer is useless maybe you won’t bother to use it before picking up your little petri dish, and you’d be dangerously wrong.

Absolutely everyone should carry hand sanitizer with them while this virus is rampant. Use it constantly. And keep it around next winter when this virus will be back along with our good old friend “the regular flu that also kills people.”

Other people pointed out to this science communicator that she was wrong about hand sanitizer. Journalist Erin Biba apparently had a conversation with her in which she acknowledged that she was wrong but refused to delete the Tweet, because “even though the info was factually incorrect, it got people to practice better hygiene, so she’s leaving it up.”

Washing your hands is better than using sanitizer, but that’s obviously not what will result from that Tweet. The result will be a whole lot of people who could be sanitizing their hands and the objects they use regularly but they won’t because they think it’s useless. People won’t suddenly stop using hand sanitizer and put their lives on hold to find a clean bathroom with hot water and soap every time they touch something shady. That’s just simple human nature.

I don’t think the scientist behind that viral tweet is an idiot. She made a mistake, and the right thing to do would be to admit as much, delete the initial Tweet, and then boost correct information in its place. I think she knows that her false information isn’t going to encourage anyone to be more hygenic, but she’s too enamored with the thrill that comes with viral content. It’s those “fake internet points” that lead people to make up stories on Reddit or come up with stupid pranks for YouTube. So now she’s just another person contributing to the downfall of society in exchange for those precious retweets.

Anyway, make sure you slam that subscribe button and don’t forget to turn on notifications and give this video a like and also follow me on Twi…

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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