Clarity
Script / Documentation

Welcome to Just Facts Academy. In this series, we focus on our Standards of Credibility—7 standards that help you research like a genius.

In today’s lesson, we’ll focus on Clarity.

Now, the definition of clarity should be … clear, but let’s define it, look at an example of why it’s so important, and discuss how to use it in your own research.

Clarity simply means easy to perceive or understand. This is important when conducting good research because it lessens the chance of misinterpretation.

Now, vague language can be unintentional—the result of lazy writing—but it can also be, as George Orwell puts it, “consciously dishonest.”[1]

You’ve probably heard of Orwell. He’s best known for writing the books Animal Farm and 1984.[2] He also wrote a famous essay titled “Politics and the English Language.” In it, he argues that “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.” And this was back in 1946![3]

Much of this essay directly addresses this issue of clarity. For instance, he says certain words are “used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”[4] No one would ever do that today, right?

Unfortunately, this is all-too-familiar. Politicians make ambiguous statements while avoiding precise language that could be used to hold them accountable. News sites publish bold headlines with bold implications; but in context, the full article is much less sensational. Let’s just say, there’s no shortage of click bait.

Whether intentional or not, a lack of clarity has caused much confusion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The words “COVID-19” and “the coronavirus” are often used interchangeably,[5] when in fact, there is an important difference between them. Let me explain.

COVID-19 is in fact caused by a coronavirus, but just one type among many different coronaviruses that exist.[6] [7]

Coronaviruses, which includes some that cause the common cold,[8] are a family of viruses that tend to mutate rapidly. This means vaccines are often ineffective against them because the virus constantly changes.[9]

However—and this is key—the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 does not share that trait. Genetic research shows that it “does not mutate rapidly,” it’s very “vulnerable to antibody neutralization,” and it shows “no unexpected … signs of adaptation.”[10] [11] [12] [13]

Simply put, even though COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus, this new type is very different. Vaccines have been developed in a relatively quick time frame,[14] [15] and they’ll possibly work forever.[16] [17]

As a result of not understanding the difference between coronaviruses in general and the specific one that causes COVID-19, some journalists spread excess confusion and fear around this issue,[18] [19] which is also hazardous to our health.[20]

Now that we’ve seen how a lack of clarity can be dangerous, let’s discuss how to avoid these errors in your own research.

It’s actually quite simple, but it requires hard work. Whether you’re researching or writing, always ask yourself, “Can this be interpreted another way?” If so, you have more work to do.

If a word or concept is unfamiliar or seems vague to you, look up the definition in a highly credible source—not just the first news article you read.

And don’t forget to read the context. I’m not just talking about the surrounding sentence or two—but actually read the whole article. Yes, that’s more work, but it’s worth the effort. It’s more than just a grade.

If there’s any uncertainty or a disconnect in logic, write to the author and ask them to explain. This is much easier than it sounds because most scholars and serious authors have webpages with their email or a simple contact form. You’ll be shocked at how accessible and helpful they can be, especially when you show genuine interest in their work.

If they don’t reply, don’t settle. Find another source that’s crystal clear.

None of this requires a high IQ. It just takes effort, which is something we all can give.

And please, don’t make the same mistake in your own writing. Remember the golden rule: Don’t confuse others as you don’t like being confused. That means don’t use vague language and be vigilant to ask yourself, “Can this be interpreted another way?”

So, make sure you apply this Clarity principle—along with the rest of Just Facts’ Standards of Credibility—so you can research like a genius.


Footnotes

[1] Essay: “Politics and the English Language.” By George Orwell. Horizon, April 1946. <www.orwell.ru>

“Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.”

[2] Article: “George Orwell.” By George Woodcock. Encyclopedia Britannica.  Accessed September 2, 2020 at <www.britannica.com>

In 1944 Orwell finished Animal Farm, a political fable based on the story of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by Joseph Stalin. … At first Orwell had difficulty finding a publisher for the small masterpiece, but when it appeared in 1945, Animal Farm made him famous and, for the first time, prosperous. …

Animal Farm was one of Orwell’s finest works, full of wit and fantasy and admirably written. It has, however, been overshadowed by his last book, Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), a novel he wrote as a warning after years of brooding on the twin menaces of Nazism and Stalinism.

[3] Essay: “Politics and the English Language.” By George Orwell. Horizon, April 1946. <www.orwell.ru>

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

[4] Essay: “Politics and the English Language.” By George Orwell. Horizon, April 1946. <www.orwell.ru>

It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

[5] Search: “the coronavirus” “COVID-19”. Google, June 16, 2021. <www.google.com>

NOTE: This search produced about 177,000,000 results.

[6] Paper: “Bibliometric and Visualization Analysis of Human Coronaviruses: Prospects and Implications for COVID-19 Research.” By Ziqin Deng, Junsheng Chen, and Ting Wang. Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, September, 23 2020. <www.frontiersin.org>

This is the seventh coronavirus identified so far to infect humans, with the others being HCoV-229E, HCoV-OC43, HCoV-NL63, HCoV-HKU1, SARS-CoV, and MERS-CoV (Geller et al., 2012). HCoV-229E, HCoV-OC43, HCoV-NL63, and HCoV-HKU1 are able to cause common cold in humans and majority of these infections only manifest mild symptoms in respiratory system (Mackay et al., 2012; Owusu et al., 2014; Annan et al., 2016). However, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV are more serious and responsible for high case fatality rates, both of whom belong to genus Beta.

[7] Entry: “coronavirus.” Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health (7th edition). Saunders, 2003. <medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com>

“Any of a group of morphologically similar, ether-sensitive viruses, probably RNA, causing infectious bronchitis in birds, hepatitis in mice, gastroenteritis in swine, and respiratory infections in humans.”

[8] Entry: “coronavirus.” American Heritage Medical Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007. <medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com>

“Any of a family of single-stranded RNA viruses that infect mammals and birds, causing respiratory infections such as the common cold and SARS in humans, and that have spikes of glycoproteins projecting from the viral envelope.”

[9] Paper: “How the SARS Vaccine Effort Can Learn From HIV—Speeding Towards the Future, Learning From the Past.” By Anne S. De Groot. Vaccine, October 1, 2003. <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov>

There are worrisome similarities between SARS-CoV and HIV; both are RNA viruses and able to mutate under selection pressure in the host; and coronaviruses are especially prone to mutation and recombination. …

… More important, the HIV vaccine development effort initially focused on replicating the approach that had been used to develop Hepatitis B vaccine development, which was to clone and express the surface protein of the virus. This simplistic approach to a complex virus was recently proven to be a failure [3]. Will scientists once again pursue “quick and easy solutions” in the hopes of stimulating a protective antibody response despite existing evidence that coronavirus vaccines (for animals) based on the S or spike surface protein have largely been ineffective?

[10] Paper: “The Spread of the COVID‐19 Coronavirus.” By Philip Hunter. EMBO Reports, March 17, 2020. <www.embopress.org>

There is though growing optimism over developing therapies against the COVID-19 virus. This applies particularly to vaccines and antibodies to neutralize the active sites of the virus surface that expedite the penetration of host cells, according to Michael Farzan, Co-chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology, Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA, USA. “This virus is a close cousin of SARS-CoV, and like SARS-CoV, it ‘chooses’, meaning has been selected, to move rapidly from host to host before an adaptive immune response emerges”, he explained. “Because of this, and unlike HIV-1 and Ebolavirus, it keeps its key epitopes exposed, probably so that it can be more efficient at binding the next cell. This makes it very vulnerable to antibody neutralization, and thus it is a relatively easy virus to protect against. I refer to it as ‘stupid’ on a spectrum where HIV, which lives in the face of an active immune system for years, is a ‘genius’.”

Furthermore, as Farzan added, it does not mutate rapidly for an RNA virus because, unusually for this category, it has a proof-reading function in its polymerase 3. “In short, a vaccine, and especially a vaccine targeted in part to the receptor-binding domain of the 2019-nCoV entry protein, the Spike or S protein, should be effective”, he said. As this protein is protected against mutation, a vaccine would not need regular updates, unlike seasonal influenza vaccines.

[11] Editorial: “COVID-19: A Puzzle with Many Missing Pieces.” By Pauline Vetter, Isabella Eckerle, and Laurent Kaiser. British Medical Journal, February 19, 2020. <www.bmj.com>

“The genome data available so far show no unexpected mutation rate or signs of adaptation, so viral factors are unlikely to be contributing to the differences observed between China and the rest of the world.”

[12] Paper: “A SARS-Cov-2 Vaccine Candidate Would Likely Match All Currently Circulating Variants.” By Bethany Dearlove and others. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 22, 2020. <www.pnas.org>

Although we cannot predict whether adaptive selection will be seen in SARS-CoV-2 in the future, the key finding is that SARS-CoV-2 viruses that are currently circulating constitute a homogeneous viral population. Viral diversity has challenged vaccine development efforts for other viruses such as HIV-1, influenza, or Dengue, but these viruses each constitute a more diverse population than SARS-CoV-2 viruses (SI Appendix, Fig. S12). We can therefore be cautiously optimistic that viral diversity should not be an obstacle for the development of a broadly protective SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, and that vaccines in current development should elicit responses that are reactive against currently circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2.

[13] For a litany of other studies with analogous findings, see Just Facts’ research on immunity to COVID-19.

[14] Article: “COVID-19 Vaccine Safety Questions and Answers for Healthcare Providers.” By Sonali Kochhar and others. Vaccine, April 28, 2021. <www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov>

To help stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic and its severe global repercussions, vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 have been developed and deployed in record time. …

The accelerated pace of vaccine development has raised concerns among some healthcare providers and the public regarding whether critical steps in vaccine development are being skipped, especially steps in assessment of vaccine safety, to compress the usual decades long vaccine development process into 12–15 months.

[15] Webpage: “Crotty Lab.” La Jolla Institute for Immunology. Accessed May 27, 2021 at <www.lji.org>

Shane Crotty, Ph.D.

Professor

Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research …

Shane Crotty, Ph.D., and his team study immunity against infectious diseases. They investigate how the immune system remembers infections and vaccines. By remembering infections and vaccines, the body is protected from becoming infected in the future. Vaccines are one of the most cost-effective medical treatments in modern civilization and are responsible for saving millions of lives. Yet, good vaccines are very difficult to design, and very few new vaccines have been made in the past 10 years.

[16] Paper: “The Spread of the COVID‐19 Coronavirus.” By Philip Hunter. EMBO Reports, March 17, 2020. <www.embopress.org>

There is though growing optimism over developing therapies against the COVID-19 virus. This applies particularly to vaccines and antibodies to neutralize the active sites of the virus surface that expedite the penetration of host cells, according to Michael Farzan, Co-chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology, Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA, USA. “This virus is a close cousin of SARS-CoV, and like SARS-CoV, it ‘chooses’, meaning has been selected, to move rapidly from host to host before an adaptive immune response emerges”, he explained. “Because of this, and unlike HIV-1 and Ebolavirus, it keeps its key epitopes exposed, probably so that it can be more efficient at binding the next cell. This makes it very vulnerable to antibody neutralization, and thus it is a relatively easy virus to protect against. I refer to it as ‘stupid’ on a spectrum where HIV, which lives in the face of an active immune system for years, is a ‘genius’.”

Furthermore, as Farzan added, it does not mutate rapidly for an RNA virus because, unusually for this category, it has a proof-reading function in its polymerase 3. “In short, a vaccine, and especially a vaccine targeted in part to the receptor-binding domain of the 2019-nCoV entry protein, the Spike or S protein, should be effective”, he said. As this protein is protected against mutation, a vaccine would not need regular updates, unlike seasonal influenza vaccines.

[17] Paper: “A SARS-Cov-2 Vaccine Candidate Would Likely Match All Currently Circulating Variants.” By Bethany Dearlove and others. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 22, 2020. <www.pnas.org>

Although we cannot predict whether adaptive selection will be seen in SARS-CoV-2 in the future, the key finding is that SARS-CoV-2 viruses that are currently circulating constitute a homogeneous viral population. Viral diversity has challenged vaccine development efforts for other viruses such as HIV-1, influenza, or Dengue, but these viruses each constitute a more diverse population than SARS-CoV-2 viruses (SI Appendix, Fig. S12). We can therefore be cautiously optimistic that viral diversity should not be an obstacle for the development of a broadly protective SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, and that vaccines in current development should elicit responses that are reactive against currently circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2.

[18] Article: “A Vaccine Won’t Stop the New Coronavirus.” By James Hamblin, M.D (Lecturer at Yale School of Public Health). The Atlantic, February 24, 2020, Updated February 25, 2020. <www.theatlantic.com>

And coronaviruses could present a particular challenge in that at their core they, like influenza viruses, contain single strands of RNA. This viral class is likely to mutate, and vaccines may need to be in constant development, as with the flu.

“If we’re putting all our hopes in a vaccine as being the answer, we’re in trouble,” Jason Schwartz, an assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health who studies vaccine policy, told me. The best-case scenario, as Schwartz sees it, is the one in which this vaccine development happens far too late to make a difference for the current outbreak.

[19] Article: “Why the New Coronavirus Is So Hard to Cure.” By Umair Irfan. Vox, March 11, 2020. <www.vox.com>

“There’s also a huge variety of viruses, and they mutate quickly, so tailored treatments and vaccines against a virus can lose effectiveness over time.”

[20] For a trove of studies documenting this, see Just Facts’ article “Anxiety From Reactions to Covid-19 Will Destroy At Least Seven Times More Years of Life Than Can Be Saved by Lockdowns.”