On researching the “new normal”

Dear Willow:

At the New York Times, Charlie Warzel wrote about all the coronavirus-related questions we don’t have answers to.

It’s pretty daunting. He moves from the basics like not knowing how many people have even been infected by the virus all the way to wondering what’s going to happen with the economy. Do we bounce back immediately? Is it a recession?

Or is it another Great Depression?


The title asks, “When will life be normal again?” I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my earlier letter about missing some of my pre-pandemic rituals, and the answer I’ve personally come to is “never.”

I had the Cubs winning the World Series as the most unlikely historical event to happen in my lifetime, but nope, turns out it’s global pandemic. Whodathunkit, other than all of the world’s experts in infectious disease, Bill Gates, the maker of a board game, and the filmmakers behind Contagion, that is.

This piece from last weekend by Donald G. McNeil Jr. in the New York Times was awfully sobering on this front. I feel like it should maybe have come with a content warning because of the nature of the information, but I think that response speaks to how difficult it is wrap one’s had around a “new normal,” that it must happen gradually, and each shift is going to surprise us at least a little bit, even if we know it’s coming.

Just one nugget from McNeil that chilled me a bit: The current time record for a vaccine is four years (for the mumps). Obviously science has advanced, but previous attempts at vaccines for coronaviruses have failed. That 12- to 18-month timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine is aspirational, not etched in stone.

McNeil is interesting, a longtime science reporter who is being tapped as an “expert” on the subject (as in this interview with Rachel Maddow), but who is not an expert like the doctors and public health people we’ll see on television or quoted in the news. He’s even different from a Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon by trade—and therefore not an expert in infectious disease—but who does have a medical background which sets him apart from other reporters.

McNeil knows a lot because he’s spent a good portion of his life talking to experts, a perspective which gives him a different and broader view than someone with a narrow role inside of the response to this crisis. It reminds me of one of our blog posts discussing the power of being a “generalist,” where we reflected on David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and how it relates to using research to solve problems.

Generalists can see things and solve problems in ways specialists can’t. The very nature of the work means reporters are always going to be generalists, and even if they spend lots of time on a particular beat, they will not fully appreciate some of the nuances those on the inside of the experience may know.

For example, education. As a longtime teacher of writing, I am often frustrated by the reporting of even highly experienced and knowledgeable education journalists. I won’t call anyone out specifically, but one of my current pet peeves are articles now talking about students’ “lost learning” during this crisis. That “lost learning,” however, is measured by scores on standardized assessments, meaning they are equating lower scores to lost learning.

I do not believe these things to be equivalent. I know they’re not equivalent, but that knowledge is wrapped up in my experience in ways that are difficult to untangle or sometimes even explain. (Though I did my best in Why They Can’t Write.)

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally right and everyone should do exactly what I say, but I think we can see how in toto we benefit from the combination of these perspectives, provided we can have a sensible conversation about them and everyone is working towards the same objective.

This is somewhat rare in our public discourse in general and decidedly uncommon when it comes to education, but  —and I know you see where I’m going with this—it’s endemic to our work.

We are rarely, if ever, subject matter experts on the object of our research when we begin a project. How could we be? The variety of projects and subjects is incredible.

But this lack of subject-matter expertise combined with research expertise is what allows the important discoveries to emerge. It’s akin to good journalism. To start, you have to ask the right questions of the right people, and it can be beneficial to have that generalist perspective in order to identify the right questions. Combined with our expertise in research design, we can discover previously unknown data. After that, it’s about finding meaning in the data and synthesizing it into a package that is most useful to the people who need it.

It’s really what makes the work fun. We get to go out and use our perspective and expertise to learn things that we bring back to the subject-matter experts (our clients) that they might not have known otherwise because they’re wrapped up in their work.

I have to believe that research is going to be able to help us understand and adapt to the new normal, even as that normal hasn’t yet arrived.

I have to believe it because I have to believe in something. What’s the alternative?

What questions do you have about the new normal that awaits us?


Yours in curiosity,


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