Lessons in communicating uncertainty & complexity

Over the last year or so, I have really enjoyed reading whatever article Ed Yong has written for The Atlantic. It’s not just the degree of care that he puts into writing his articles, it’s also the fact the he is very good at explaining complex problems in simple terms.

His latest article is entitled The 3 Simple Rules That Underscore the Danger of Delta. It boils down the interaction between vaccines and the virus into 3 simple rules as follows:

  1. The vaccines are still beating the variants
  2. The variants are pummelling unvaccinated people
  3. The longer Principle No. 2 continues, the less likely No. 1 will hold

More than these simple rules, however, is the way these ideas are put forth. I particularly like how he balances complexity vs clarity. Another writer who does this extremely well is Zeynep Tufekci. As someone in a similar position (but with a far smaller audience), I’m trying my best to learn how to communicate uncertainty & complexity from writers like Yong & Tufekci.

I hope The Atlantic will forgive me in quoting one paragraph from the article in its entirety. It describes our problems dealing with low-probability events that have far-reaching consequences.

The discussion about vaccine-beating variants echoes the early debates about whether SARS-CoV-2 would go pandemic. “We don’t think too well as a society about low-probability events that have far-reaching consequences,” Majumder told me. “We need to prepare for a future where we are doing vaccine rollout again, and we need to figure out how to do that better.” In the meantime, even highly vaccinated nations should continue investing in other measures that can control COVID-19 but have been inadequately used—improved ventilation, widespread rapid tests, smarter contact tracing, better masks, places in which sick people can isolate, and policies like paid sick leave. Such measures will also reduce the spread of the virus among unvaccinated communities, creating fewer opportunities for an immune-escape variant to arise. “I find myself the broken record who always emphasizes all the other tools we have,” van Kerkhove said. “It’s not vaccines only. We’re not using what we have at hand.”

It goes without saying, but we really need to do something about this.