Both researchers say they are somewhat frustrated that the press coverage they’ve seen so far is lopsided. “It’s not necessarily exciting to share work that has a whole bunch of caveats,” MacDonald said. “The challenge for science journalists in general is how to talk about scientific uncertainty and how to get that across to the general public, who might be more interested in a yes/no answer,” MacDonald says.
Hopkins adds that hypotheses like the dilution effect need to be handled with extra care. “The argument here is that we can reduce human risk of disease and that’s a really big deal,” she said, “so we don’t want to promise that if that’s not something that can actually be delivered as a solution.”
Ultimately, that’s Wood’s biggest concern, too. “We need to not close our eyes to the fact that conservation can sometimes increase human disease risk,” she said.
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Of course, Wood would be upset if her research was used as an excuse to halt conservation efforts. “I didn’t get into this business because I want people to cut down forests,” she emphasizes. But she also fears that claiming conservation will broadly reduce disease could lead to unintended consequences.
“My position is not that the dilution effect never happens—that is absolutely the opposite of what I think,” said Wood, pointing out several studies that have found evidence. “But there’s also a whole bunch of parasites that show the opposite response.” Wood says she “would be 100 percent behind efforts to use conservation to control infectious diseases,” if those efforts put the time and resources into examining how their actions affect the diversity of human pathogens in the area.
“Our argument is that you really need to understand the whole spectrum of responses of disease to environmental changes, because otherwise, conservation is a roll of the dice in terms of public health,” she explained. “We want people to go into conservation with their eyes wide open so that they can plan for potential collateral impacts.”
Any associated costs with implementing disease monitoring or prophylactic measures given that risk, Wood says, are “very minor when compared to the potential damage you could do through a conservation project that initiates an epidemic.”
It’s a sentiment that journalists would be wise to heed as well. After all, when covering hypotheses like the dilution effect that are hotly debated amongst scientists, the costs of diligent coverage are minor compared to the potential harms of shoddy reporting.
One-sided coverage not only undermines the media’s credibility and the public’s trust in the process of science. Such weighted stories imply advocacy, even if carelessly. And if, as Wood supposes, an outbreak occurs after our tacit approval, then we, too, would share in the blame for the lives destroyed by it.