Interview with Christina Pagel, Professor of Operational Research (a branch of applied mathematics) at University College London (UCL) and Director of the UCL Clinical Operational Research Unit. Since May 2020, she has been a member of Independent SAGE, a group of scientists working together to provide independent scientific advice on how to support Britain’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
In addition to your regular work as a mathematician at University College London (UCL), you are a member of an independent advisory group and are very outspoken about the COVID-19 pandemic on Twitter. What prompted you to ramp up your outreach?
In England, we have had really high infection numbers for months on end, and at some point people are just sick of it and stop talking about it. I feel like I have a responsibility to remind the public that this isn’t right and to highlight the fact that people are dying, that people are lying in hospitals. As I work with health services, I am in close contact with a lot of intensive care doctors. Some can’t speak out, so they ask me to raise these issues. What they want to highlight is the strain on them and their staff, and the consequences of what happens when they get sick – this was particularly important in the January 2021 wave.
You also take issue with disagreeing with information coming from the government.
The UK was really late in vaccinating teenagers, so it spread like wildfire through our schools and hasn’t stopped since. In the light of those numbers, what do public health agencies like the UK Health Security Agency do? They are still saying that it doesn’t spread in schools. It’s just bizarre. In the press conference yesterday [15 November 2021, pre-Omicron], Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that European cases would rise and that their wave [the Delta wave] was going to come to the UK. That is a lie, because it has been here the whole time. We also had our health secretary say, ‘You only have to wear a mask with people you don’t know’. How can that be the public health messaging? That’s why I have to keep speaking out.
What kind of threats do you receive?
A few of the emails I get are highly anti-Semitic, containing slurs like ‘big nose’, ‘kike’ or ‘you have blood on your hands’. That was really shocking but also really weird since I am not Jewish. This year, topics like child vaccination and masks are what set people off, so they started attacking me on these topics. Which is odd, because despite being reasonably high-profile, I don’t have any power. I don’t make any policies.
How do you deal with these attacks?
Unlike some of my colleagues, I have not had any death threats, but occasionally I’ve reported threatening emails to the police and to my university, which has been really supportive of my work. I just delete the angry conspiracy-type emails. But then there are also other angry emails from people who have been struggling throughout the lockdown. I think that is legitimate anger (but misplaced towards me), so in the beginning I replied, but it just never ends. So I stopped replying, and that makes it go away most of the time. If not, I block them and report it to their service providers, who suspend the attackers’ accounts.
Do you take any precautions to prevent attacks in the first place?
I am lucky in that my husband is very technologically savvy. He is very keen on internet hygiene and always told me not to put any personal information out where it’s public. He has advised me to not put many photos of myself online and to not give any details of where we live or other personal information. I never, ever hint that it’s my birthday. That would be bad online hygiene. I do occasionally post pictures on Twitter, but never a private shot.
But not everybody manages to keep their private addresses hidden.
That’s right. One of my colleagues has now ended up on an alt-right hit list, and they have published her home address. She gets a lot of physical hate mail, and it gets much more disturbing when people know where you live. She is now on their radar, whereas I am not, which makes it a lot worse for her. So being on the target list of an extreme group makes it a lot worse. But it also depends on the discipline you’re working in.
My colleagues who work in behavioural science and the social sciences get a lot more abuse than I do. I think it’s partly because people feel (wrongly) more empowered to disrespect their expertise and twist what they do. Whereas a lot of my Twitter content is very data-driven. Fewer people can have a go at me about that. Sure, they might disagree with how I interpret it, but they can’t really say that I am lying, because everything is data-based.
Yet, with more than a 165 000 Twitter followers, you are very much in the spotlight. How do you interact with such a large crowd?
When I started off and had only a few thousand followers, I would interact a lot more with them. But that also meant I saw a lot more of what were sometimes horrible messages. Now I’ve tweaked the settings on Twitter so that I cannot see 99 % of the bad things people write about me. That is really good for my mental health. Some of my friends and colleagues look at hate messages that they receive. And then I ask them, why would you do that?
Speaking of colleagues, not all Twitter scientists are well-disposed towards you, are they?
I have ended up blocking some prominent scientists on Twitter. I find the trolling from established scientists the most difficult to deal with. You cannot enter into a dialogue with people who are only interested in bringing you down. So everything you say just escalates things, and you end up coming across defensively – which confuses the audience who are not involved. It never ends well, so you have to accept that people will attack you and you cannot defend yourself. That is quite difficult.
How well does turning a blind eye towards the haters work?
You have to do it consistently. For a long time, my friends would send me screenshots, telling me ‘so-and-so said this about you’, and I told them, ‘I really don’t want to see it because I can’t do anything about it’. And then I just ended up thinking about it nonetheless. This was four or five months ago, when it was really bothering me. My husband told me, ‘you have not talked about anything else for the past three days’. He was right. Since then, I’ve mainly just walked away from hate messages. And the only way I can defend myself is through making sure I put out excellent content, which already takes up four to five hours of the workday sometimes.
And you are doing this with the exceptional support of your department head. Not every scientist is allowed to do that. Why not?
With the kind of outreach that I am doing, there is no money in it for the university. Universities care about income that you can generate through teaching and research grants. And you don’t get grants to support outreach like this. But universities do like the reputational benefit when they can say, ‘a UCL professor was on the news last night’. So it’s not for everyone, and it is certainly easier if you are already in an established role. Either way, outreach should be considered part of your career. Not everybody wants to do it, but if they do, then their institutions should enable and support them.