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Predicting the Pandemic

An interview with Wendy Zukerman, host of the Science Vs podcast.

Episode 263 | March 12, 2021

The Distillations podcast team is hard at work on our next season. It’s not quite ready, but we have a treat for you in the meantime. We interviewed Wendy Zukerman, the host and executive producer of one of our favorite podcasts, Science Vs. In normal times the show pits facts against fads—they talk about everything from detox diets to the supposed benefits of Cannabidiol, or CBD. Since early 2020, however, they’ve been reporting about the coronavirus pandemic. But they actually started even earlier than that: in the fall of 2019 they coincidentally produced an episode all about global pandemics. We talked with Wendy about whether or not she’s psychic, the challenges of pivoting to news reporting, and why it’s so important for Science Vs to tell history of science stories. The latest season of Science Vs (which is not about COVID-19) just launched on March 4!

Credits  |   Transcript

Credits

Host: Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
Original music by Jonathan Pfeffer

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Transcript

Lisa Berry Drago:  Hello and welcome to Distillations. I'm Lisa Berry Drago. So, we spent this long dark winter working hard on our next season and we're getting really excited to share it with you. One reason? Because it has nothing to do with COVID. Well, hardly anything. Now, it's not gonna be ready for another few months, but in the meantime, we have a treat for you.

Wendy Zukerman:  Hi, I'm Wendy Zukerman and you're listening to Science Vs. from Gimlet Media.

This is the show where we pit facts against fads.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Our producers Mariel and Rigo interviewed Wendy Zukerman, host and executive producer of one of our favorite podcasts, Science Vs. They talked about the challenges of pivoting to COVID reporting and why it's so important for Science Vs. to tell history of science stories.

Mariel Carr:  Thank you so much for joining us.

Wendy Zukerman:  Thanks for having me.

Mariel Carr:  So I wanna start where I think probably everyone starts, but we can't resist, with the fact that in October of 2019 you produced an episode called Pandemic!!! with three exclamation points.

Wendy Zukerman:  On today's show, Pandemic.

If a new and deadly disease was spreading around the globe today, how bad could it really get?

Mariel Carr:  So my question is, are you psychic? [laughs] Did you bring this on?

Wendy Zukerman:  [laughs] Uh, yeah, very bizarre. It was very, very bizarre and you know, looking back and thinking back about why we did that episode and... because we, we... for those who, who haven't listened, we, we turned it into basically a fictionalized pandemic and asked what would happen if, uh, a, a pandemic started in, in the modern world, borrowing a lot of what now so many of us know is like the 1918 flu and what happened in that situation and, and the reason that we... and, and that was very unusual for us. We'd never created a fictionalized version of science before. We thought it would be kind of fun, um, kind of contagion with citations and, and the, the reason that we did it was because we thought how else are we gonna make people care about the science of pandemics if we don't do this because it just feels so, uh, so out of our world.

Like back, back in 2019, the idea of social distancing or that you wouldn't be able to go into work because of a virus? Like as if we're gonna make people care about that and, and tell the crazy stories about how in 1918, the trolleys didn't work-

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  Or whatever it was. You know what I mean? It just, it felt like how can we make people care about herd immunity and we thought this, this is how we'll do it. And then... so even that just feels so bizarre now because all of these things are so-

Mariel Carr:  Yeah.

Wendy Zukerman:  Incredibly relevant to our lives, so much so that they've just become, you know, we have short hand for them. In Australia it's now called, you know, iso instead of isolation. You know, there's-

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  So it's bizarre.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah, and it's funny, you know, you talked, called up this guy that was not a household name yet, or again.

Wendy Zukerman:  We called up the guy.

Anthony Fauci:  Uh, you know, I'm one of the people, uh, you know, I wouldn't say the guy.

Wendy Zukerman:  This humble fella is Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Mariel Carr:  And then of course you had to call him up again when the actual pandemic was taking off. What was it like... like what did we not hear on tape when you called him back up?

Wendy Zukerman:  Yes, so I guess it was only, uh, three months later then, and one of the reasons that we did a Coronavirus episode in January when it was just sort of... pa- just in people's ears, I remember it was so new that when we were thinking of what to call the episode, I ascertained should we call it... should we have Coronavirus in the title because do people know what that is? And my editor was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that's becoming [laughs] known enough now in America."

'Cause it was still just sort of, um, it was so new. And, and one of the reasons we did that episode and did it so early was because we had produced this quite horrifying fictionalized account of a pandemic and, and I wanted to tell the audience this isn't that. [laughs] This isn't... this isn't that. And so, so when new were talking to-

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, to Fauci, that was kind of the background I gave him. I was like, "Well, you know, remember this, this episode." And I should say that our, our fictionalized version the, the death toll was much higher. It was a much, uh, more deadly virus than the Coronavirus we're dealing with now.

Mariel Carr:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, so it was, it was a worst case but, but I remember there was a lot of, you know, even when setting up that call, I was like, "We just need a quick chat just so Anthony can tell us that like this, this isn't what we told you three months ago."

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  We're gonna be fine and then, and then we got on the call with him and he said-

Anthony Fauci:  Wendy, uh, um, I'm, I love you, you're wonderful. But I'm telling you six different ways, we cannot predict. We can't. This is an evolving situation. It could go either way. It could taper out like SARS or it could take off in a very, very widespread way. And that's the truth.

Wendy Zukerman:  I like will never forget when we got off that call and me and Meryl Horn who was producing the episode just looked at each other and was just thinking oh.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah.

Wendy Zukerman:  That's not, that wasn't the angle we... that's not what we thought. So much of Science Vs. is fighting against fear mongering.

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  We're this kind of anti fear mongering show and so the last thing we wanted to do was make people afraid when they didn't need to be but then to have him say you, we very well may need to be scared, uh, was a definite turning point.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah. So, you were supposed to be on a break producing your next completely unrelated season and you say that to listeners and then you come back for this one episode and then I, I see in March, you know, you're like, "We're moving on. You can listen to Sanjay Gupta" but [laughs] then like the next week, you're in your kitchen unpacking all these chick peas.

Wendy Zukerman:  This is Wendy here, from Science Vs. . I am now working from home and my package of food for the pandemic has just arrived. Um, right. Open it up. Wow. Lot of cans of chick peas.

Mariel Carr:  It's just so... was such a great illustration of like the moment. Like I think we all kind of had a version of that moment. [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  I know because we released a trailer, I think, saying like oh the fun we're gonna have this season and all the topics we're gonna cover and then none of that happened and we, we just threw everything out and did whatever it was, 20 episodes about the Coronavirus.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah, so what... was it a slow dawning? Did you suddenly realizing that was happening?

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, it was, it was a slow dawning. Even though we had done the episode, even though Anthony Fauci had told us we don't know which way this is gonna go, the most recent examples of outbreaks that we had, so SARS, MERS, um, did not become... even Ebola to some extent, did not become these nightmare scenarios that when you watch the news clips of those original outbreaks, there is a lot of this could become the worst pandemic in... you know, there, there was a lot of fear mongering-

Mariel Carr:  Hm.

Wendy Zukerman:  And then it didn't, it didn't, um, you know, China was able to control SARS, um, MERS didn't become this, you know, pandemic situation we're in now, neither did Ebola. Um, you know, because there was a case of it, there was a, a, an Ebola patient in the United States. So, you know, so it just felt like all these modern examples of outbreaks were contained. So, so I kept thinking this one will be contained and you know, China did... what... Fauci I remember called this very dramatic action.

And, and in retrospect, that really should have been a sign to me, and it was, but I guess I was still so much in surely in denial, um, that the fact that China acted with so strong once they acted really should have been a wake up call to everyone to say why on earth would a country halt their, their economy due... you know, if they weren't so worried about what was going on? And, and that should have been more of a wake up call than it was, but, but much like you, I mean I think I... we, we did one episode about, um... once we started realizing we were gonna have to focus on the Coronavirus more-

Mariel Carr:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, I remember we did a couple interviews about what social distancing was and, um, and what we now needed to do and I remember the weekend before we were then asked to work from home, so it would have been around mid March and there was one weekend where I felt like I... and I think the whole team felt like we knew what hadn't dawned on a lot of people yet.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah.

Wendy Zukerman:  But it was really only... and then I feel like it slowly dawned on everyone over that week. But I, I definitely remember walking around New York and hearing people... everyone was talking about the Coronavirus and the, and the pandemic. It was very [inaudible 00:10:16] almost. But I re- I remember people making fun of social distancing. Like hearing... 'cause at that point, I was already like six feet, six feet apart-

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  Six feet apart. And I remember hearing someone say, "Oh, social distancing." [laughs] You know, it was like-

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  It was at that... 'cause New York was really ge- about to get quite scary soon after that. Um-

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  And so we didn't, we didn't have much, um, you know, much knowledge ahead of everyone else, but I do remember that weird, weird weekend.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah, and then what was it like as things started unfolding and almost like exactly mirroring that pandemic episode? Like not taking the subway anymore?

Wendy Zukerman:  Yeah, having academics you know, literally parrot in some cases what we had written-

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, was... was, uh, was very odd and I think if I ha- if the team, if we hadn't been working so hard, I think I would have been incredibly upset by it but I think we were just sh- 'cause there were a few moments where, you know, particularly I remember when there was, um, uh, Vincent Racaniello, who is a virologist, um, when he said, when we were talking about the, the strategy of closing boarders and then he said, you know, "It's already here. It's already here." Which was exactly what our fictionalized epidemiologist had said, then four months before.

Um, I ju- like that just like hit me in the guts and I could have just curled up in a ball in that very moment, and then... but we had to make the episode and make another one [laughs] and make another one and make another. So I was like, okay, off we go.

So I, I think it could have been upsetting but instead it was just like, "Okay, that's weird. Let's just... just keep moving science now."

Mariel Carr:  Yeah, and so, you basically had to pivot to basically doing breaking news, which is very different from what your shows are typically like, right? Like I understand they take a couple months to produce. How did you shift to that and what did you have to change and sacrifice?

Wendy Zukerman:  Yeah, so you're exactly right. Usually it takes, uh, two to three months to be, um, producing episodes. I mean we're, we're on a, on a break now so we're produ- the episodes I'm making now will, will come out in, in March or April. Um, and, it's very nice. [laughs] We do a lot of research. Uh, most of that time is spent doing research and talking to academics.

And so, to flip to the news cycle meant that instead of one producer, so, uh, you know, I lead the episodes. I'm leading and then we have this amazing team and, and each of, each of them have their own baby episodes that they produce. But, instead it would be the entire team basically producing each episode as we went.

Mariel Carr:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Wendy Zukerman:  And then as things move forward we, we were able to, um, to kind of, uh, create a little bit more of a process. But just at the beginning when we were all just getting used to what was going on, um, everyone was, was helping to research episodes as they were coming out in, you know, two days, three days. And I think what helped was the fact that there wasn't that much that was known about the Coronavirus.

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  So for example when, uh, you know, we did an episode about exercise and, and what it's good for and what it's not good for and you know, that has been researched for [laughs] decades and decades and so to get across the body of research takes two months. But the Coronavirus had, you know, we just got the genetic code in January.

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  [laughs] So we couldn't have had that much research on it and so a lot of the research that we did end up doing was trying to look at comparable viruses, what makes sense, what doesn't. Um, but, but it did help, the fact that there just wasn't that much, uh, to, to be, to be reading. And then, what was also kind of very new about this pandemic was the fact that, that scientific literature was getting put out so incredibly quickly. I mean, we could not have made this episode if academics didn't start putting things up on pre print before they were peer reviewed, which did come with its pros and cons and it meant we had to be super careful-

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  About using that research.

Um, but because the bread and butter of our show is research, like, if we didn't have anything to go on and we just had doctors that we were interviewing on the ground, which we did when we, when we didn't have, um, research that we could, that we could rely on, um-

Mariel Carr:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Wendy Zukerman:  It would have, it would have been impossible to make the show. We, we probably wouldn't have made as many episodes as we did. So yeah, there was a, there was a lot of, a lot of things that were changing. But from a, um, a kind of, uh, nerdy, uh, you know, podcast narrative process, uh, perspective, what, what I did realize about when you, when you pivot to the news is it does have some advantages, um, in that it's... you don't need to work so hard to make people care about a topic.

Mariel Carr:  Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah.

Wendy Zukerman:  So a lot of what we spent time on, um, after we've done all that research when, say, we're doing an episode about whether it's exercise or, um, um, [laughs] I'm researching one right now which is, you know, very interesting on antivenom, on snake bites.

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  And, um, [laughs] the, the, there's a lot of work that then goes into making an audience care about that, particularly now. Um-

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  You know, it's just Coronavirus day in and day out. Um, and so, that takes a lot of like narrative work, how do you do that, but whereas in the middle of a pandemic, um, when everyone cares so much about the Coronavirus, when everyone... particularly, particularly at the beginning when you didn't have the fatigue you have now, um-

Mariel Carr:  Yeah.

Wendy Zukerman:  When people really wanted to know, you know, how should I go to the, the supermarket, do I need to wear a mask? Sh- you know, is this virus airborne, quote, unquote, um, it wa- it... all you needed to do was ask the question and, and it was like yes, I mean, and that's the answer-

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  I wanna know the answer. I don't, I don't need, you know, a song and dance-

Mariel Carr:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Wendy Zukerman:  To get me interested in this.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah, it's like critical information.

Wendy Zukerman:  Yes.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah.

Wendy Zukerman:  News you can use and it's-

Mariel Carr:  [laughs] Yeah, exactly. Um, so at it's core, Science Vs. is about, you know, debunking faulty science, separating fact from fic- fiction, truth from conspiracy theory perhaps and obviously, you know, COVID is full of that. Um, so like your show was almost made for the, this moment, but at the same time, some of the myths that are circulating are like too ridiculous. Like there's not... you know, it's not like is, does CBD really work for X, and you can really dig into that. Like you don't have to dig very far to learn that injecting ourselves with bleach is never a good idea.

So how do you navigate... you know, how have you navigated that when talking about COVID?

Wendy Zukerman:  Yeah, I think we, we kind of developed, once it became clear, which it became clear pretty quickly that there was gonna be a lot of, um, a lot of guff coming out, a lot of nonsense, uh, we really had to triage what was, what was gonna be important enough that we, that we tackled. Um, and we, we kind of had a couple of, of different tests for that. One was can we add anything new?

Because when the bleach thing came out, every news site, I mean, even Fox news was like, "Don't drink bleach." [laughs]

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  So, so at that point, we, you know, we can't beat the news cycle quote unquote-

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  But also there's no [laughs] there's no need. You know, even though we're pumping these episodes out quickly, we can't, we can't, you know, write them as quickly as a, as a online, you know, uh, written piece. Uh, yeah- but there was, there was no need to set up an episode to tell people really the intricacies of exactly what bleach will do to your body [laughs] if you drink it. Um, you know, whereas Hydroxychloroquine was a different story. So that, um, you know, because particularly at the beginning, it kind of became a catch cry of ridiculousness.

But at the beginning of the pandemic, there was genuine interest in whether this could work and there were good quality clinical trials that were done.

Mariel Carr:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, based on what the very early, um, very early re- I shouldn't call them results, but sort of anecdotes of what, um, doctors were seeing in China. Because, you know, at the beginning of the pandemic, uh, doctors in Wuhan, you know, wa- just didn't have any information. They're desperately trying to help these patients, trying whatever they had on the shelf. This malaria drug, um, showed some promise and I remember reading like a very early article that was just basically... uh, we, we, we are... you know, it was very quickly written, we are seeing some, some, um, good news with this, you know, some patients seem to be doing well.

And so there was interesting, and then of course, Donald Trump said some nonsense about it, you know, said it was God's gift. Um, then, you know, and, and, then it became madness. Um, uh, but amidst that, scientists were genuinely trying to work out if it worked and then we found out from very good clinical trials that it didn't.

Um, but that was an example of something that we thought no, actually, let's find out what is going on here because there's more to it than simply this is rubbish, particularly at the time we didn't know if it was rubbish or not.

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  So there, there was a couple of, you know, uh, a step... one that was really tricky for us was whether we were gonna tackle did it, um, escape from the lab. Uh, there were a lot of debates from the team about whether that was just, um, uh, basically, uh, you know, a racist, uh, plot point, um, political plot point and whether we should be tackling it. But then, the reason that we did in the end was we, we realized how popular it had become and how many people did think that-

Mariel Carr:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Wendy Zukerman:  This was either intentionally or accidentally released in a lab and on top of that, we realized that the... from a very nerdy perspective, the science of how scientists, you know, know or did think very readily this was not, uh, made in a lab, they know it wasn't made in a lab, um, the science of, of that and the genetics of how they, they can analyze a virus and see that was super interesting and not something I was reading elsewhere.

So then-

Mariel Carr:  Hm.

Wendy Zukerman:  That became enough to, to tackle that episode.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah, to add something. Um, so, all along, you've had these recurring segments that are completely unrelated to Coronavirus. Um, like I think there's one about like why does grass smell nice after the rain. How did... who's idea was that and why, why did you decide to have that?

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, I, I think that was my idea, the NCVC's, the non-Coronavirus content.

Mariel Carr:  Right.

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, and that was because we all needed a, a Coronavirus break, basically.

Mariel Carr:  Yeah.

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, and we thought if we did, our audience did and we enjoyed so much just the, the mental break of beautiful, quirky science. It was such a joy, um, our, uh, our intern at the time, [inaudible 00:21:44] she, she kind of became the lead producer of those episodes, uh, of those segments and, um, and it was just such a joy to, to, to read the, uh, scripts and, and edit them and, and we got such lovely feedback from, from our listeners and I, I think it was... there was just so much Coronavirus content, you know, particularly in the, in the months. I mean, there is still, who am I, who am I kidding?

Mariel Carr:  [laughs]

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, that just that reminder that there is still... there is still beauty in the world and science is still doing weird things. It's not all serious-

Mariel Carr:  Yeah.

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, was, was just something that we felt we, we needed.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  Yeah, uh, so, the history of si- Science Vs. has done like a few episodes on history of science and they kind of stray away from the regular formula of debunking science, or debunking faulty science. Uh, how do episodes like this differ from regular episodes for your team and basically, uh, why, why are you doing them?

Wendy Zukerman:  Um, wa- uh, yeah, so they, they are really different for our team. Um, we've done a, a few of them now. I think we do them for a bunch of reasons. Um, the, these are episodes that we are, are genuinely interested in. Um, but there's other reasons. I mean I think the story of Science Vs. , we, we obviously love science. It is, it is what I hope [laughs] will drive the world and the way that we create policy in the future and think about things. I think, you know, trying to be more rational and evidence based has just helped me live my life and be a happier person, ultimately.

But, having said that, science does not have a, a wonderful history in, in many respects. It's messed up many things. Um, you know, the, the science of gender, the, the science of race. Um, and so I think it's important for us to, to, to say that and to acknowledge that like yes this... when done well, science is wonderful, but when done awful, it's extremely powerful and, and can be extremely dangerous.

And so those... you know, just telling people that or if we'd had an episode on like how science has mucked up things, it can feel a little, um, treachery, a little tut, tut, tut. Uh, but if you tell that through a story, um, it, it can be much more powerful. So it's, it's ka- I guess it's our way of, of nodding to that.

And I mean, sometimes we do just say science really messed this up. We did that in the transgender episode. Uh, we did that in the race episode. Um, but the stories, uh, help us kind of tackle that in a different way.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  Yeah, like, uh, science rotten under belly was about how medical experiments done in prisons and in Philadelphia and how like that was actually the standard for testing products in, in, uh, prisons and how they were kind of great places to do that because they were in a controlled setting basically. And that kind of hurts trust that people have in science. Uh, I'm wondering how that lack of trust is applied today? Like what role does trust have... what role does people's trust in science have in, in understanding science today?

Wendy Zukerman:  Yeah, I think, I think it's a great question. I mean, I think there's a, a lot of misunderstanding of like what is science. Um, so I guess, you know, when I say I, I love science or whatever it is, whatever nerd thing I said, um, I guess I mean the, the scientific process of, of having an idea about something and then testing it and testing it with objectivity so that if your experiment fails, um, you publish that hopefully and, and then we move on.

Um, but of course, as you say, you know, in history too often, um, the, the things that people were testing, you know, there was not objectivity. There was, um, there was ideas about how the world works embedded within them. You know? I've mentioned gender and race, but just to focus on gender for a second, you know, we, we have, um, you know, countless examples of saying things like, you know, oh, you know, men evolved for this and women evolved for this and if you look at the, uh, the animal kingdom, oh, look at all these examples of these me- male species doing this thing and female species doing things thing.

Um, and now, now we have more women doing evolutionary biology and going, "Wait a second. There's a female spider that will eat the male, you know, after they've had sex. Oh hold on a moment. Like, there's a female bird over there doing this thing that we didn't think females did." You know, so, so it's just... you know, and that, that really reduces your faith in science when you hear that because these are narratives that, that have stuck around and people still say today.

Um, and it is, and it is a problem and I, I suppose I just hope that people can, can separate out the two. The fact that yes, science messes up and we need to be aware of that, but that doesn't mean the whole scientific process is not the way to go and instead you should rely on your intuition and truthiness. Because I do still think that you know, relying... that, that these days, science is getting it right more often than it's getting it wrong and it has baggage that we need to be aware of. But I still think the world would be a better place if we wa- if we trusted the science even if it messes up a little rather than whatever we're trusting now to get us through the day.

Well thank you, thank you so much.

Mariel Carr:  And, um, yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and, uh, yeah. Well good luck on your next season. Um, I hope that it's... you know, somewhat of an escape from everything you've [laughs] been working on.

Wendy Zukerman:  Thank you, thank you so much.

Mariel Carr:  And, uh, yeah. All right.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  'Kay, thank you, bye.

Wendy Zukerman:  Bye.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations. Stay tuned for updates on our coming season and remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It's also a multimedia magazine. You can find our videos, stories and every single podcast at distillations.org and you'll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.

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The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts to sciencehistory.org/givenow. For Distillations, I'm Lisa Berry Drago. Thanks for listening.