The tweet that catapulted him to stardom began with the all-caps exclamation, “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.” This is not language we expect from scientists on Twitter, and certainly not something we would see in an academic paper. But this is the tone Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding used at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to sound the alarm.
He now tweets to an audience of over 729,000 followers and is regularly featured on major news networks as an expert on our on-going infectious disease tribulations. His social media warnings are often speckled with arresting emojis: his go-to symbols are the red light and the exclamation mark in a yellow triangle. Capitalized words like “EPIC” and “WOW” are certainly attention grabbers, but the real question is: what does he do with people’s attention?
It takes an expert to know one
Eric Feigl-Ding is not a medical doctor. This came as a surprise to me, though it may not be particularly relevant. The title of “doctor” in English-language media is ambiguous: it can refer to physicians, to Ph.D. graduates, to dentists, even to chiropractors. Feigl-Ding has a dual doctorate in nutrition and epidemiology from Harvard University, and while epidemiology can be the study of infectious diseases and how they spread through the population, his own pre-pandemic corner of epidemiology had more to do with food than viruses. He did enrol in medical school but left before completing his degree.
Many critics of Feigl-Ding’s accuse him of epistemic trespassing. As “epistemic” relates to how we know the things we know, the accusation translates to “stay in your lane.” It’s when an expert leverages their credentials in one field to dip a toe into another field. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly elevated a number of COVID minimizers to celebrity status in large part because they pass the credential sniff test. They are doctors therefore, people think, they must know what they are taking about, even though a closer look reveals them to be epistemically trespassing.
But Feigl-Ding’s case is a lot murkier and reveals the problems with defining expertise these days. You don’t need to be a virologist to translate to an anxious public what we know about a new virus’ modes of transmission, and a deep knowledge of epidemiology can help you separate sense from nonsense in the scientific literature. Let’s not forget that some actual experts have made questionable public remarks during the pandemic, including an acting medical officer of health accusing masking and vaccination requirements at his alma mater of threatening to ruin the university and tweeting that he would sooner give his children COVID-19 than a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Expertise does not fully immunize against bunk. The counterargument to epistemic trespassing is credentialism, the accusation that only people with exactly the right, narrow expertise should be allowed to speak on urgent matters of global relevance.
This expertise murkiness is not helped by the circumstances in which journalists get to decide who is an expert worth platforming. I regularly receive media requests from journalists and producers addressing me as “doctor” or “professor” even though I am neither. The news machine moves at breakneck speed and media requests are frequently urgent. Multihour daily radio programmes need content and producers are often scrambling to fill that airtime. The Rolodex effect cannot be ignored: whoever picks up the phone and says “yes” to an interview is now an expert whom journalists can easily reach. I’ve been invited on shows to talk about things I’ve never written about simply because, in that producer’s Rolodex, I was marked as “the science guy.” Humility kept me from trespassing beyond my own perceived expertise, but different personalities will make different choices.
Feigl-Ding grabbed the limelight and did not let go because, as he has confessed to journalists, he finds many academics to be too reluctant to speak out, waiting for an abundance of evidence. There is some truth here. Journalists sought my contribution a lot in the early days of the pandemic in part because of the Rolodex effect and in part because of impostor syndrome. Many academics secretly harbour the fear that they do not deserve the position they have, that they are impostors and will one day be found out. This false perception leads them to avoid media engagements, which opens the door for confident spotlight-seekers to come in instead and bask in the exposure.
When experts do share their knowledge with the public, it is usually in the careful, professional tones they have been taught to deploy in academic writing. Their language is crowded with nuance and avoids certainty. Feigl-Ding captured the public’s attention because he does not behave like an academic. There is a comparison here to be made with Donald Trump, who decided that the implicit rules of decorum in politics could be vigorously broken without incurring a penalty. Feigl-Ding, with his stress-inducing emojis and apocalyptic announcements, cast away academic decorum and was rewarded with attention. And when an old system seemed sluggish, he could replace it with a newer lookalike. While the World Health Organization (WHO) was slow to take a stance on monkeypox, Feigl-Ding’s own World Health Network declared monkeypox a pandemic, even using the phrase “Public Health Emergency of Global Concern” which is typically reserved to the WHO. This co-opting of official messaging can easily confuse scrollers on social media: in fact, that may be its point.
The intentions behind this purposeful confusion may well be noble, but the ways in which Feigl-Ding rushes to achieve his goal raise a few ethical questions.
Move fast and break things
Feigl-Ding told science journalist Jane C. Hu that once you have captured an audience’s attention, that’s when you can get into the weeds or provide information beyond the headlines. On Twitter, whose pulse reporters keep a finger on, Feigl-Ding is sensationalistic and eye-grabbing. On television, I have found him to be calm and nuanced. A charitable interpretation of this strategy is that Feigl-Ding is ready to be over the top in order to catch the attention of journalists and be invited onto legitimate platforms where he can perform a public good. As an early assessment of his rising popularity in The Atlantic pointed out, when you brush up against the line between allowed and prohibited content on social media, engagement goes way up. Negative news trumpeted as cataclysmic can grab us in a way that positive news or more complex reporting doesn’t.
Is it ethical to sensationalize in order to secure views? I am reminded of a thought-provoking video by science educator Derek Muller for his highly successful YouTube channel, Veritasium. One of his videos, in which he dropped a basketball off of a dam, was not getting many views on his own channel. It was called “Strange Applications of the Magnus Effect” and featured a thumbnail image of a basketball with two arrows. But when somebody else uploaded it to the platform with the title “Basketball Dropped from Dam,” it garnered tens of millions of views within a few weeks.
Now, Muller says that making the title and the thumbnail to a video is at least half the job, and like many creators on YouTube, he does real-time A-B testing of different titles and thumbnails to see which get the most clicks. That is why you may see a new video with one thumbnail and, five hours later, that same video has a completely different image tempting you to click it. Because if people don’t click on a video, they don’t watch it, and if your goal is to educate a general audience, you can’t do it if nobody watches your video. Responsible clickbait does have a place on platforms overflowing with content, including Twitter.
But Feigl-Ding is not just clickbaity; he gets facts wrong.
In one of his early pandemic tweets he mistakenly wrote that this new coronavirus was eight times as infectious as SARS, which was nowhere near true based on the preliminary data he was quoting. Later, he shared a graph from the CDC and claimed it meant that young people were just as likely to be hospitalized with COVID as older generations, even though a close look at the graph’s axis revealed this was not true. On Mehdi Hasan’s MSNBC television show, he could be heard claiming that one in seven children will get long COVID, so in “a 30-person classroom, statistically, four kids will have suffered some form of long COVID.” Hasan had to correct him on the air: “In a 30-person classroom, if all kids had COVID, four of them could develop long COVID.” Alarmism comes easily to this epidemiologist.
Lately, he has brought his brand of corner cutting and hair raising to monkeypox as well, writing in May on Twitter that a “study indicates monkeypox is aerosol stable for up to 90 HOURS and remain infective during that time.” That alarming message was retweeted 4,909 times, at the time of writing. His follow-up tweet, in which he admitted that the study had been done in artificial conditions, with the virus being purposefully aerosolized by the scientists, received a measly 259 retweets.
Feigl-Ding’s motto seems to echo Mark Zuckerberg’s early catchphrase for Facebook: move fast and break things.
“Breaking things” in the middle of a pandemic, however, can easily make you part of the problem. Communication over the new coronavirus has been rife with misinformation, so much so that the WHO labelled it an infodemic. We science communicators have a responsibility to get our facts right within reason. Better scientific studies can change our knowledge and thus our conclusions, but this is no excuse for getting basic facts wrong and unduly scaring people.
There are also consequences to hyperbole: message fatigue. When you keep screaming that the sky is falling, people will start turning a deaf ear to your proclamations. And if Reefer Madness taught us anything, it’s that exaggerating harm in the service of saving lives can backfire when the people who recognize the exaggeration start distrusting you wholesale.
A less charitable interpretation of what Feigl-Ding is doing is to call it clout chasing, and his critics have not shied away from this explanation. Rising to the top of the influencer pyramid has its rewards. It puts you in touch with the influencing elite. It can lead to book deals and speaking engagements because your name is now recognizable. It can even multiply job offers. Feigl-Ding ran in 2018 to represent one of Pennsylvania’s districts in Congress and has said that he may someday run again. Is he more interested in the popular vote than in the vote of the scientific community?
In my view, Feigl-Ding is ringing the alarm bell on a number of indeed alarming issues that are not sufficiently motivating the members of calcifying systems. The wheels of power are slow to move, and Feigl-Ding, who is both smart and, I would like to think, well-intentioned, is bringing great big cans of oil to bear.
However, with great platforming comes great responsibility. Infectious diseases do require prompt responses, but if our sentries keep messing up in a bid to be first, is the public truly being served?