Science, politics and trolls: How Carl Bergstrom became a voice of clarity on the coronavirus

“It never occurred to us that if a pandemic actually broke out, there would be political lines drawn over whether it even existed."
Image: Carl Bergstrom
Adrian Lam / NBC News

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By Denise Chow

More than a decade before the coronavirus became a global scourge, Carl Bergstrom was working on a plan for what to do if just such a pandemic ever broke out.

Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, conducted research on pandemic planning, crafting strategies to contain the spread of infectious diseases. He said the work naturally intertwined with policy discussions. Former Vice President Dick Cheney took an interest in the research, he said, particularly in debates about the role of the government in public health crises.

But even with that background, Bergstrom was unprepared for how politically charged and hyperpartisan the current health crisis has become.

“It never occurred to us that if a pandemic actually broke out, there would be political lines drawn over whether it even existed,” he said.

An evolutionary biologist by training, Bergstrom has emerged as one of the nation’s top experts during the coronavirus pandemic — a measured voice amid the hysteria and a prolific Twitter personality in a field that isn’t always known for its outspoken advocates. Bergstrom has been using his platform to cut through the politics to educate the public, elevate the voices of other scientists and fight back against claims that are misleading or downright false.

It’s a somewhat thankless job. Being outspoken on Twitter has opened up Bergstrom to regular attacks from online trolls who question his motives, integrity and expertise. But advocating for science, he said, is also the most important thing he can do right now.

“Helping people understand what’s going on and why we need to take the steps we’re taking helps people to be willing to make the sacrifices they need to and helps create the political will to put strong steps in place to slow down the pandemic,” he said.

Stepping into that role was sort of a natural fit for Bergstrom, whose background in evolutionary biology steeled him for contentious debates.

“I was involved to some degree in the so-called evolution wars and arguments about intelligent design and creationism,” he said. “But I just really like talking to people about science.”

Science has always been intertwined with policy — at times driving lawmakers’ agendas but more recently getting disregarded or downplayed. And politics have colored every aspect of the current outbreak, with President Donald Trump himself pushing questionable claims.

Early on, Trump touted an unproven treatment, the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, despite early evidence that the drug does not prevent COVID-19 symptoms in patients. Studies of hydroxychloroquine are still ongoing, but in May, Trump said he took a two-week course of the drug as a preventative treatment.

But even as coronavirus cases skyrocketed in states such as New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and Illinois, political battles were waged over stay-at-home orders that some felt were too stringent. And though scientists have repeatedly warned about the dangers and transmissibility of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, a recent Gallup survey found that a majority of self-identified Republicans remain skeptical about how deadly the coronavirus is compared to the flu.

This type of uphill battle may have caught Bergstrom by surprise, but it’s all too familiar territory for scientists in other disciplines, including climate researchers.

“I was saying, ‘I can’t believe this is politicized — it’s just science,’ and the climate change people were just rolling their eyes,” he said. “I’m sure they were like, 'You poor, innocent biologist, you have no idea.'”

For the most part, Bergstrom said he’s able to maintain a healthy discourse with people online, but he added that some allegations are harder to stomach than others.

“What I and a lot of other scientists don’t like are accusations that we’re not acting in good faith,” he said. “We take that extraordinarily seriously. When people say you’re faking the science in order to advance a political agenda or whatever, that’s a terrible accusation to make. It’s a lot worse than being called stupid.”

Yet Bergstrom is hardly naïve to the dark side of social media. His research has focused on network structures and how network dynamics can influence both how diseases spread and how they can be contained. From there, Bergstrom said he became interested in using similar mathematical models to track how information — and disinformation — spread online.

Bergstrom and Jevin West, an assistant professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, developed what has become a popular course called Calling Bulls*it. The expansive syllabus includes tools for how to identify and refute falsehoods — particularly those that hide behind data or other statistical figures — in politics, science, pop culture and the news media.

Bergstrom and West have been teaching the course since 2017, and a book of the same name is set to be published by Penguin Random House on Aug. 4. The duo had no idea the book’s release would coincide with the most serious pandemic in more than 100 years, but the timing is particularly prescient.

“We couldn’t anticipate that it would be this particular thing, but we could anticipate that we were going to face a serious crisis that would be exacerbated by the way information is exchanged and the way that communication networks become polarized,” he said.

And it’s Bergstrom’s relentless drive to promote science and combat misinformation that has kept him going during this global health crisis. He was one of the early voices that turned “flatten the curve” into a rallying cry to curb the virus’ spread. He takes it upon himself to keep up with coronavirus research so that he can add context to the findings or answer questions about it from his audiences. And he regularly consults with local and state politicians to help craft strategies for reopening businesses and easing lockdown restrictions.

It’s a big undertaking. Bergstrom estimated that he receives 50 to 100 requests for his time each day — ranging from meetings with other scientists, interview requests from reporters or consulting calls. For a roughly six-week period beginning in mid-March when the pandemic reached a fevered pitch in the U.S., Bergstrom said he was working 100 hours a week, juggling little sleep and often waking up in the middle of the night to sift through more research.

But there’s no trace of complaint in his voice. Rather, he’s grateful for the opportunity to do his part.

“I feel extremely lucky to have something to do during the pandemic that is contributing and feels like it has meaning,” he said.

There have also been other silver linings. While social media can be a breeding ground for armchair experts or bad actors seeking to spread false information, Bergstrom said he has also experienced a level of engagement with science that he says is gratifying.

“I’ll be walking through the grocery store and hear people talking about positive predictive value or the problems with error-prone seroprevalence testing, and that’s remarkable to me,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll come out of this with some public good and public interest in science, and I hope we’re not so exhausted that we fall down on the job in terms of being there to keep engaging with people once this is all over.”

As for his own workload, it remains just as heavy, but Bergstrom, wary of burnout, is trying to maintain more of a balance.

“I’m down to 80 hours a week now,” he said, “which feels a lot more manageable.”