Definitions are essential to science, but they are increasingly hijacked.

It’s a funny old time to be a scientist. Advances are being made as ever, and new knowledge around airborne virus infection and transmission is accruing like never before. Not long ago, we were even marching for science. But it now feels very much like science is not only being ignored by those who should be listening, but actively being undermined – even its advances being hijacked.

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We each have an armchair and a megaphone now, and there is a tribe for every megaphone. I think it’s an amazing time for the public to learn and then ask the questions that learning fosters. It’s been a chance to challenge and open the minds of scientists to new and different kinds of questions. But these new times have brought with them an increase in misinformation, disinformation, attacks and the further splintering of our already siloed lines of communication.

One of the areas being weakened by the darker side of an epidemic of pandemic-emboldened and billionaire-facilitated, confident non-expertise is the language of science and discourse that relies upon it.

Concepts need simple definitions

Because science changes with new knowledge, the words used to describe and define it can change as well.

One way this happens is through the development of new terms. They could be new names for a new thing like ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2’ or ‘coronavirus disease 2019’. Sometimes they are old terms or words that need an update, like ‘airborne virus’ or ‘aerosol’. The really fun ones are all new or rediscovered phrases that try to capture a newly understood issue that would otherwise be too wordy to repeat every time you want to refer to it, like ‘immunity debt’, ‘immunity gap’ (I still prefer ‘infection gap’!) or ‘herd immunity’.

Words have meaning and definitions are essential to science so everyone is on the same page.

Whether at a scientific conference, coffee chat or on social media, if there are two opposing meanings for the same phrase, then the ‘debate’ will never be able to reach any sort of consensus, or have one side concede a point to the other, because they were never on the same page (or book!).

An example of a trend

Here’s a pattern I’m seeing, and while I’ll use one phrase to represent this pattern, I think the problem exists for other newly coined terms that are intended to help us understand complex patterns we simply haven’t given enough thought to or properly observed, tested and analysed in the pre-pandemic past.

When the term ‘immunity debt’ came out in the scientific literature in May 2021 (yes, before the WSJ article), it was presented as a fairly well-defined (see below) and reasoned shorthand to sum up observed events. But somewhere – quickly – along the way, that term was hijacked and redefined to mean something else.

The lack of immune stimulation due to the reduced circulation of microbial agents and to the related reduced vaccine uptake 

Cohen et al. Infect Dis Now. (2021); 51:418-423.

Hijacking and changing an okay definition for the worse

During that hacking, the meaning changed, and that attracted a lot of anger, and rightly so because the new meanings were stupid.

There were also some who considered that creating a term not already set in the revered stone of a medical textbook was very problematic. Yet its absence doesn’t discount the term from being useful. Plus, that literature can be notoriously slow to update and often has very limited reach once it is. I’d propose searching old texts or PubMed for ‘SARS-CoV-2’ or ‘COVID-19’ (ignore the errors in PubMed!). Should these acronyms also be dismissed?

It’s worth noting that the problems were perhaps aided by a lack of sufficient clarity in the original published definition. “Debt” doesn’t innately convey the impact of fewer infections on the immune system – at least not to me. So perhaps ‘immunity debt’ was ripe for pillaging. Intent that can be understood by working experts accompanied by a full scientific paper. When it comes to the public or non-experts, a clearer term may have headed off some issues. Even here, words matter.

Assumptions and alterations change meaning

The altered meanings were created by bolting on ideas like:

  • The immune system had been damaged by non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) like masks and lockdowns (it hasn’t).
  • The immune system had been damaged due to a lack of exposure to RSV, streptococci, influenza and other infections (it hasn’t), causing them to have severe infections (this was not the original definition).
  • The immune system is a muscle that needs infections to exist (it doesn’t, and the authors didn’t say this), and so immunity debt meant it was a good thing to infect kids with pathogens, even though we know those can all cause serious harm when children are very young.
  • COVID-19 damages immune systems (it gives them a short-term hit like other infections do, yes), inducing a lasting immune deficiency (nothing supports that) – with some amplifying the ridiculous and unfounded new phrase “airborne AIDS” (there is a benefit to having new terms coined with some scientific expertise involved).
  • Renaming it to “immunity theft” because, according to this theory, catching COVID-19 (should be SARS-CoV-2) increases susceptibility to other infections (studies haven’t shown big and specific increase in co-infections beyond the addition of a new virus into the respiratory virus mix).

Some changes are straw men that make it easier to attack a new thing – for whatever reasons.

via GIPHY

Anger ensues

Language changes, evolves and is newly created all the time. And it should. But that’s a different issue to assigning new meaning to an existing definition that makes it mean something other than what was intended. Even some scientific literature has bolted on new bits of information seemingly from misinformed mainstream and social media commentary, and the original coiners of ‘immunity debt’ aren’t happy with all this.

via GIPHY

The anger directed at this term by commenters includes calling it:

  • “made up”
  • “dangerous”
  • “bullshit”
  • an “excuse”
  • “imaginary” and
  • attributing it to governments perpetuating mythical solutions.

It’s been called “fictional” (despite being a product of the peer-reviewed literature). Some have renamed it “immunity theft” or reinterpreted it to mean that immunity is something we need to invest in. A lack of background investigation even ascribed it to the folk at the Great Barrington Declaration (immediately resume life as normal, herd immunity crew)!

So what does it all mean?

The example I’ve used is one of a perfectly useful – even if a placeholder – phrase. But it became tarnished by a misinformed hijacking. It’s not alone. Language is littered with non-expert interpretations and the use of initially expert language. Look at the popular naming of SARS-CoV-2 variants for the public. ‘Pirola’ is hands down easier to recall than BA.2.86, right? Actually, it isn’t for me, but whatevs. And the widely accepted but completely wrong use of ‘COVID-19’ to mean both the virus and disease. Ugh, but it happens. And it can’t be reversed because these are examples of two very different oil and water worlds immiscibly colliding. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t try and set the record straight!

selective focus photography of bookshelf with books
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Disappointingly in this example, it’s the malformed definition- not the scientifically reasoned and defended one – that has also been adopted by some science, medical and communication professionals. This group has no excuse. They should be taking their facts from a peer-reviewed source if one exists. They have, by omission, added to the miasma of misinformation. They could have helped combat it. Maybe they could have chipped in to refine the term if they didn’t like its description of this hypothesis.

Despite perhaps a less-than-perfect term the meaning was defined. Scientists can define things, but maybe we need the cool kids to come up with the final terms? But that definition was either not sought, or it was deliberately undermined, hijacked and then attacked. It’s enticing to think some just went with the more populist, loud and angry story of the day. This tactic of repurposing existing words to remove their value comes to us from ugly politics where little is truthful or trustworthy. But without words having meaning, communication fails, and without communication, we can’t understand each other. Human populations that don’t understand each other, drift apart, like emulsions reverting to separated layers. That’s where we seem to be heading.

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