Q&A with Holden Thorp: Finding Better Ways to Communicate Science
This month, Leaps.org had a chance to speak with Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals. We talked about the best ways to communicate science to the public, mistakes by public health officials during the pandemic, the lab leak theory, and bipartisanship for funding science research.
Before becoming editor of the Science journals, Thorp spent six years as provost of Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor and holds appointments in both chemistry and medicine. He joined Washington University after spending three decades at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served as the UNC's 10th chancellor from 2008 through 2013.
A North Carolina native, Thorp earned a doctorate in chemistry in 1989 at the California Institute of Technology and completed postdoctoral work at Yale University. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Read his full bio here.
This conversation was lightly edited by Leaps.org for style and format.
Matt Fuchs: You're a musician. It seems like many scientists are also musicians. Is there a link between the scientist brain and the musician brain?
Holden Thorp: I think [the overlap is] relatively common. I'm still a gigging bass player. I play in the pits for lots of college musicals. I think that it takes a certain discipline and requires you to learn a lot of rules about how music works, and then you try to be creative within that. That's similar to scientific research. So it makes sense. Music is something I've been able to sustain my whole life. I wouldn't be the same person if I let it go. When you're playing, especially for a musical, where the music is challenging, you can't let your mind wander. It’s like meditation.
MF: I bet it helps to do something totally different from your editing responsibilities. Maybe lets the subconscious take care of tough problems at work.
MF: There's probably never been a greater need for clear and persuasive science communicators. Do we need more cross specialty training? For example, journalism schools prioritizing science training, and science programs that require more time learning how to communicate effectively?
HT: I think we need both. One of the challenges we've had with COVID has been, especially at the beginning, a lot of reporters who didn’t normally cover scientific topics got put on COVID—and ended up creating things that had to be cleaned up later. This isn't the last science-oriented crisis we're going to have. We've already got climate change, and we'll have another health crisis for sure. So it’d be good for journalism to be a little better prepared next time.
"Scientists are human beings who have ego and bravado and every other human weakness."
But on the other side, maybe it's even more important that scientists learn how to communicate and how likely it is that their findings will be politicized, twisted and miscommunicated. Because one thing that surprised me is how shocked a lot of scientists have been. Every scientific issue that reaches into public policy becomes politicized: climate change, evolution, stem cells.
Once one side decided to be cautious about the pandemic, you could be certain the other side was going to decide not to do that. That's not the fault of science. That’s just life in a political world. That, I think, caught people off guard. They weren't prepared to shape and process their messages in a way that accounted for that—and for the way that social media has intensified all of this.
MF: Early in the pandemic, there was a lack of clarity about public health recommendations, as you’d expect with a virus we hadn’t seen before. Should public officials and scientists have more humility in similar situations in the future? Public officials need to be authoritative for their guidance to be followed, so how do they lead a crisis response while displaying humility about what we don't know?
HS: I think scientists are people who like to have the answer. It's very tempting and common for scientists to kind of oversell what we know right now, while not doing as much as we should to remind people that science is a self-correcting process. And when we fail to do that – after we’ve collected more data and need to change how we're interpreting it – the people who want to undermine us have a perfect weapon to use against us. It's challenging. But I agree that scientists are human beings who have ego and bravado and every other human weakness.
For example, we wanted to tell everybody that we thought the vaccines would provide sterilizing immunity against infection. Well, we don't have too many other respiratory viruses where that's the case. And so it was more likely that we were going to have what we ended up with, which is that the vaccines were excellent in preventing severe disease and death. It would have been great if they provided sterilizing immunity and abruptly ended the pandemic a year ago. But it was overly optimistic to think that was going to be the case in retrospect.
MF: Both in terms of how science is communicated and received by the public, do we need to reform institutions or start new ones to instill the truth-seeking values that are so important to appreciating science?
HS: There are a whole bunch of different factors. I think the biggest one is that the social media algorithms reward their owners financially when they figure out how to keep people in their silos. Users are more likely to click on things that they agree with—and that promote conflict with people that they disagree with. That has caused an acceleration in hostilities that attend some of these disagreements.
But I think the other problem is that we haven’t found a way to explain things to people when it’s not a crisis. So, for example, a strong indicator of whether someone who might otherwise be vaccine hesitant decided to get their vaccine is if they understood how vaccines worked before the pandemic started. Because if you're trying to tell somebody that they're wrong if they don't get a vaccine, at the same time you're trying to explain how it works, that's a lot of explaining to do in a short period of time.
Lack of open-mindedness is a problem, but another issue is that we need more understanding of these issues baked into the culture already. That's partly due the fact that there hasn't been more reform in K through 12 and college teaching. And that scientists are very comfortable talking to each other, and not very comfortable talking to people who don't know all of our jargon and have to be persuaded to spend time listening to and thinking about what we're trying to tell them.
"We're almost to the point where clinging to the lab leak idea is close to being a fringe idea that almost doesn't need to be included in stories."
MF: You mentioned silos. There have been some interesting attempts in recent years to do “both sides journalism,” where websites like AllSides put different views on high profile issues side-by-side. Some people believe that's how the news should be reported. Should we let people see and decide for themselves which side is the most convincing?
HS: It depends if we're talking about science. On scientific issues, when they start, there's legitimate disagreement about among scientists. But eventually, things go back and forth, and people compete with each other and work their way to the answer. At some point, we reach more of a consensus.
For example, on climate change, I think it's gotten to the point now where it's irresponsible, if you're writing a story about climate change, to run a quote from somebody somewhere who's still—probably because of their political views—clinging to the idea that anthropogenic global warming is somehow not damaging the planet.
On things that aren't decided yet, that makes sense to run both. It's more a question of judgment of the journalists. I don't think the solution to it is put stark versions of each side, side-by-side and let people choose. The whole point of journalism is to inform people. If there's a consensus on something, that's part of what you're supposed to be informing them about.
MF: What about reporting on perspectives about the lab leak theory at various times during the pandemic?
HS: We’re the outlet that ran the letter that really restarted the whole debate. A bunch of well-known scientists said we should consider the lab leak theory more carefully. And in the aftermath of that, a bunch of those scientists who signed that letter concluded that the lab leak was very, very unlikely. Interestingly, publishing that letter actually drove us to more of a consensus. I would say now, we're almost to the point where clinging to the lab leak idea is close to being a fringe idea that almost doesn't need to be included in stories. But I would say there's been a lot of evolution on that over the last year since we ran that letter.
MF: Let's talk about bipartisanship in Congress. Research funding for the National Institutes of Health was championed for years by influential Republicans who supported science to advance health breakthroughs. Is that changing? Maybe especially with Sen. Roy Blunt retiring? Has bipartisanship on science funding been eroded by political battles during COVID?
HS: I'm optimistic that that won't be the case. Republican Congresses have usually been good for science funding. And that's because (former Sen.) Arlen Specter and Roy Blunt are two of the political figures who have pushed for science funding over the last couple decades. With Blunt retiring, we don't know who's going to step in for him. That's an interesting question. I hope there will be Republican champions for science funding.
MF: Is there too much conservatism baked into how we research new therapies and bring them to people who are sick, bench-to-bedside? I'm thinking of the criticisms that NIH or the FDA are overly bureaucratic. Are you hopeful about ARPA-H, President Biden’s proposed new agency for health innovation?
HS: I think the challenge hasn't been cracked by the federal government. Maybe DARPA has done this outside of health science, but within health science, the federal government has had limited success at funding things that can be applied quickly, while having overwhelming success at funding basic research that eventually becomes important in applications. Can they do it the other way around? They’ll need people running ARPA-H who are application first. It’s ambitious. The way it was done in Operation Warp Speed is all the money was just given to the companies. If the hypothesis on ARPA-H is for the federal government to actually do what Moderna and BioNTech did for the vaccine, themselves, that's a radical idea. It's going to require thinking very differently than the way they think about dispersing grants for basic research.
MF: You’ve written a number of bold op-eds as editor of the Science journals. Are there any op-eds you're especially proud of as voicing a view that was important but not necessarily popular?
HS: I was one of the first people to come out hard against President Trump['s handling of] the pandemic. Lots of my brothers and sisters came along afterwards. To the extent that I was able to catalyze that, I'm proud of doing it. In the last few weeks, I published a paper objecting to the splitting of the OSTP director from the science advisor and, especially, not awarding the top part of the job to Alondra Nelson, who is a distinguished scientist at black female. And instead, giving part of it to Francis Collins. He’s certainly the most important science policy figure of my lifetime, but somebody who’s been doing this now for decades. I just think we have to push as hard as we can to get a cadre of young people leading us in Washington who represent the future of the country. I think the Biden administration leaned on a lot of figures from the past. I’m pushing them hard to try to stop it.
MF: I want to circle back to the erosion of the public’s trust in experts. Most experts are specialists, and specialists operate in silos that don’t capture the complexity of scientific knowledge. Are some pushbacks to experts and concerns about the perils of specialization valid?
HS: You're on the right track there. What we need is more respect for the generalist. We can't help the fact that you have to be very specialized to do a lot of stuff. But what we need is more partnership between specialists and people who can cross fields, especially into communication and social sciences. That handoff is just not really there right now. It's hard to get a hardcore scientist to respect people who are interested in science, education and science communication, and to treat them as equals. The last two years showed that they're at least as important, if not more so.
MF: I’m grateful that you’re leading the way in this area, Holden. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your work.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.