Lessons Learned From the Controversial Sturgis Superspreader Report
Under immense pressure, science research and science communication are prone to flaws
A controversial new paper released this week reported that the 2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, held in August in South Dakota, was a Covid-19 superspreader event. As reported earlier on the Coronavirus Blog, nearly 500,000 people attended the 10-day rally, and mask-wearing and social distancing was minimal. The authors estimated that a whopping 19% of the total cases in the U.S. between August 2 and September 2 were due to the event — which translates to over 250,000 cases.
But in the days following its release by San Diego State University’s Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies, the working paper — which hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed — received harsh criticism from scientists, government officials, and the media. Scientists, like Brown University School of Public Health dean Ashish Jha, MD, and epidemiologist Jennifer Beam Dowd, PhD, raised concerns about its methodology. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem called it “fiction.” And an independent analysis by the Washington Post suggested that only 260 cases nationwide were linked to the event; AP, meanwhile, reported over 290 cases. As the criticism rolls in, it’s becoming clear that the findings must be taken with a hefty grain of salt.
It’s natural if you feel disappointed and angry that the paper’s authors would release such a bombshell report without the required checks and balances. There’s enough misinformation out there as it is without researchers adding to the mix. But as science journalist and editor Sarah Sloat writes at Inverse in a smart, very human analysis, the lesson to learn from the Sturgis study debacle is that the chain of science communication on which we rely is painfully flawed. The more productive response, she argues, is a renewed commitment to responsible science communication — and empathy for the people working under tremendous pressure to publish data on Covid-19:
The Sturgis report is, in some ways, a case study in what happens when three factors collide: research not ready for public consumption, puzzlement over the scientific process, and eagerness for the latest details of the biggest news story in the world. And preventing similar cases of confusion and controversy in the future depends on both researchers and the public.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Kevin Griffith, an assistant professor in health policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Sloat, and I think it’s helpful for anyone trying to make sense of Covid-19 data as it comes pouring in: “Be both skeptical and forgiving of new research on Covid-19. It feels cliché, but we live in turbulent times and medical researchers are struggling just like everyone else.”