image: NASA/Unsplash

With the astonishingly fast creation of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines, science seemed to have saved us from the pandemic. But many people refused vaccination as scary stories spread through social media. Thousands of people continued to die every day. Science, it seemed, wasn’t enough when humans wouldn’t cooperate.

But Lauren Ancel Meyers argues we shouldn’t give up — we just need to strengthen pandemic science by understanding, and planning for, the particularities of human behavior. And she believes that advances in the social sciences are making that possible in groundbreaking ways. She’s bringing together a wide array of experts to more deeply understand, predict, and influence people’s behavior during a pandemic. The workshop, “Understanding, Tracking, Predicting, and Influencing Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Dynamics During Public Health Crises,” will be held at SFI, November 8–9.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people were describing what they were thinking, feeling, and doing all over social media. And that fire hose of chatter, in Meyers’ eyes, is “a gold mine of data.” New methods have been developed to extract information from messy data like Reddit posts or tweets, allowing scientists to, for example, measure the real-world impact particular public health messages or news reports had, with far more nuance than simply, say, tracking vaccination rates in its aftermath.

The next step will be to incorporate this understanding of human behavior into epidemiological models, improving their accuracy. And the final step will be to learn the most effective ways of influencing behavior to protect the community as a whole. “Even today, we haven’t come up with effective strategies for combating vaccine hesitancy,” Meyers says. But with data-informed models, she believes, “we can design policies that people are going to want to adhere to.”

“It’s a call to action,” Meyers says. “Can we build predictive intelligence to explain human behavior around pandemics?”