Headlines definitely proven to cause headaches, study shows

"Helping your students recognize the 'organisms evolve for a reason' misconception will inoculate them against the sloppy ways evolution is often described in the news," writes NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid.

New York Post headline

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There was a fair amount of publicity in late September 2020 about a preprint article reporting that during the second wave of coronavirus infections in the Houston area in June 2020, nearly all the circulating virus had the amino acid glycine (G) at position 614 of the spike protein. In the first wave, in March and April 2020, around a quarter of circulating virus had the amino acid aspartic acid (D) at that position. Increases in the frequency of this variant over the course of the pandemic had been noted elsewhere, leading to speculation about whether the change made the virus more transmissible. Some laboratory findings seemed to support the idea that the mutation makes it easier for the virus to get into cells. Not surprisingly, the claim that SARS-CoV-2 might be becoming more infectious was newsworthy.

The story is back in the news this week because the final, peer-reviewed version of the study was published in the journal mBio on October 30, 2020.

Here are three September headlines about the study:

What do you notice about these headlines? What I notice is a pretty dramatic escalation in, well, drama. The Washington Post headline simply summarizes what the study found—changes in the frequencies of certain strains over the course of the pandemic, changes that could be indicative of evolution due to selective pressure (emphasis on could—the changes could also be due to chance, a possibility the study acknowledges).

The Forbes headline highlights the study’s suggestion that the variant is becoming more frequent because it is more contagious. Except that’s not how the headline phrases it. Instead, it says “Mutated to Become More Contagious,” suggesting that the variant evolved greater infectivity on purpose, making this headline a terrific example of a terrible misconception—that organisms evolve for a reason.

Let’s pause to smash this misconception to smithereens. Saying that an organism is evolving in order to become anything—faster, prettier, smarter, whatever—is like saying that a chef got lots more business at his restaurant in order to become a better cook, or someone got a lot more “likes” on Facebook in order to become more popular. It’s exactly backwards: characteristics become more common over time because they make the organism more successful. The strain is becoming more contagious—maybe—because the more contagious variant is infecting more people and thus becoming more common, not because the coronavirus thought, “Gee, I should become more infectious!,” pursed its little virus lips*, and started mutating like crazy to generate a more infectious variant.

The New York Post headline goes even further to suggest that the virus is evolving not only to become more contagious, but specifically to evade preventative public health measures like wearing a mask or washing hands. In this headline, the misconception has gotten completely out of hand and gone from annoyingly reinforcing a widespread misconception about evolution to dangerously suggesting that our best preventative measures may have driven the virus to evolve resistance to them. That could easily play into the hands of people who would love to be able to cite evidence that practices like wearing masks and washing hands are not only ineffective but even possibly dangerous. This is, to put it mildly, balderdash—and irresponsible balderdash at that.

If you’d like to read an excellent analysis of the full New York Post article (the content of which is no better than the headline), you can find one here on the Health Feedback website, along with reviews of many other articles and claims. Well worth a visit whenever you read a claim that makes you say “Huh?”

Unfortunately, the wild claim made in that headline did not come from nowhere. You can trace a direct line from an interview in the Washington Post article cited above with a virologist who took one step along the path marked “Evolution” and ended up fourteen miles away in “Speculation Gulch.” (Disclaimer: I know the virologist in question, and he’s a smart guy who, I’m sure, is not happy about how his line of reasoning—which was, admittedly, problematic—was turned into a disastrous headline.) Here’s the interview, with my indented annotations on the boldface passages:

David Morens, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reviewed the new study and said the findings point to the strong possibility that the virus, as it has moved through the population, has become more transmissible

Not terrible, but it would have been more precise to say “the findings point to the strong possibility that this variant is increasingly common because it is more transmissible.” This would have been better not only because it promotes thinking in terms of populations, which is essential to understanding evolution, but also because it would help to head off the idea that the virus is aiming at improving its transmissibility—the “things evolve for a reason” misconception.

… and that this “may have implications for our ability to control it.

This is reasonable. The more contagious a virus, the harder it will be to contain.

Morens noted that this is a single study, and “you don’t want to over-interpret what this means.

Amen, brother.

But the virus, he said, could potentially be responding—through random mutations—to such interventions as mask-wearing and social distancing.

It was a nice idea to include “through random mutations,” although I’m skeptical that it’s anything like enough to deter people from succumbing to the “things evolve for a reason” misconception. But as for the rest: hoo boy, that’s a giant stride down the path to speculation gulch. There’s absolutely no evidence that more contagious variants are being selected for because so many people are wearing masks and social distancing. (If only we had that level of compliance!)

“Wearing masks, washing our hands, all those things are barriers to transmissibility, or contagion, but as the virus becomes more contagious it statistically is better at getting around those barriers.”

Plop. We’re really in the gulch now. No. There is no evidence that a more contagious virus is more resistant to hand-washing. Nor that it can somehow get through a mask more easily. The more contagious virus is not “statistically” better at getting around the barriers.

In fairness to Morens, I suspect that this is what he might have meant: the more contagious the virus, the more important it will be to wear masks and wash our hands because the virus will spread more easily than a less contagious variant among an unprotected population.

I’ll be the first to admit: it’s hard to write accurately about evolution. It’s practically impossible to resist the temptation to use concepts that humans instinctively relate to, like doing things for a reason, working towards a desirable goal, or finding a way around obstacles. Humans are very fond of agency and purpose, but evolution has no destination. Helping your students recognize the “organisms evolve for a reason” misconception will inoculate them against the sloppy ways evolution is often described in the news.

*You know viruses don't have lips, right? Good. Just checking. It was a little joke.

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.