Experts are humans, too: Morten Sodemann
In this interview series, we get to know four researchers better. They are experts on COVID-19 and diligently used by the media with everything it entails. But they’re perfectly ordinary people, too.
Title: Professor, Chief Physician
Age: 61 years
Areas of research: Professor of Global Health and Immigrant Health. Chief Physician, Immigrant Medicine Clinic, Odense University Hospital. Researcher in cross-cultural clinical and communicative competencies.
Among other things known from the following media: DR P1, Altinget.dk, Ræson, Berlingske Tidende, Politiken, DR2 Deadline, Dagbladet Information, TV2, Twitter, various blogs.
Hobby(s): Reading blogs and books, kayaking/paddle boarding, listening to music, tweeting on Twitter.
Why are you featured in the media?
Partly because global health issues are often part of the public debate;
partly because my area of experience and research, the health of ethnic
minorities, is often the subject of media and politicians' attention.
There are few researchers in the field, compared to the massive attention of the press and the population, so every time a news item has something to do with immigrants, there are only so many people you can call. As a researcher, you also have an obligation to communicate.
How do you relate to ongoing discussions, e.g. on social media?
I try to stick to discussing with people who mainly do so to learn from one another. There are loads of topical ‘ruses’ on social media that one must learn to steer clear of. It only takes a second to get wound up in a derailed debate based on rabid opinions without logic. Social media are powerful tools in terms of professional exchanges and dissemination.
I’ve learned a lot from knowledge-driven dialogues on social media. I think it has been incredibly educational on many levels to have to articulate myself accurately with very few characters available on Twitter. And the constructive tweeters are good at listing sources and sharing links to relevant articles.
Also, Twitter, for example, is a great medium for direct contact with media people, decision-makers and politicians – it bypasses the common structures and provides many fruitful contacts. Most of my interviews are initially based on a tweet.
What responsibility do you feel for the way your statements are used?
You can, to a large extent, control your statements on social media, but you cannot control how they are perceived outside of those media. Therefore, you have to think extra carefully about your message: Is it interesting? Does it make us any wiser? Does it improve the quality of the debate?
Only fools have no fear of the heading manager – nowadays, headlines may exist to generate traffic, not to make a point, and that is a researcher’s worst enemy
I know most of the journalists who write about my subject areas and they have never hoodwinked me. You need to know which newspapers may take a certain angle (either the victim angle or a certain political angle), and in those cases, you must expect to be misrepresented – they may change the context or interview people with a different opinion, and in those cases, you come off as a party rather than an expert.
Only fools have no fear of the heading manager – nowadays, headlines may exist to generate traffic, not to make a point, and that is a researcher’s worst enemy.
What do you do when you want to disconnect from the COVID-19 media exposure?
I enjoy going for a walk, listening to podcasts on topics I had no idea existed, chopping firewood, playing loud music or watching crappy movies with good lines that you find yourself waiting for. But I might also write an angry-worded debate piece for the rubbish bin.
If you had to come up with one piece of good advice for others who want to take on the role of an expert, what would it be?
Drop any dislike of contact with the media and journalists. It is possible to influence the media's interest and dissemination without letting them trample on you, but it requires that you have a message that you stand by and stick to.
Never allow yourself to get caught up in (or lured into) what is called epistemological predation. This means that you start behaving like an expert in other people's fields – the press loves it, but you immediately lose credibility. Just don’t. Keep your nose clean and stick to what you have first-hand evidence to comment on – control your ego.
How has working with immigrant medicine during COVID-19 affected you?
It’s been a never-ending disruption, just like for everyone else. This spring, I was a doctor on a COVID-19 ward, and our own clinic has since been converted to virtual consultations. It has been a difficult transition for us and the patients.
It is becoming clear that patients can benefit from virtual conversations. However, it is also clear that although online meetings are fine for decision-making and exchanging general information, Zoom cannot create the ‘collective creative brain’ that arises when a team spends time together in person – on the contrary.
On the other hand, did I finally got around to finishing writing my book, which was published in November ('What you do not know will hurt the patient’). This was probably primarily due to the fact that all my lectures were cancelled and converted to online lectures.
In your opinion, what will it take for us to have a better collective conversation about COVID-19?
To be honest, I’m not sure the conversation is all that bad. Compared to many other countries, I think the public conversation has been lively but decent. Some deviants are to be expected.
The debate has been characterised by a friendly interaction between politics and research/knowledge. Some people have vented their opinions, but I also think they have been countered by input from experts who have been able to introduce light and shade into the debate.
It’s been almost like a long-lasting ‘Folkemøde’ (Danish festival for democracy and dialogue, ed.), where people have met each other through a more direct dialogue – citizens, politicians, media and experts
I do not recall experts having such a central place in the public debate. In my opinion, the press has been good at obtaining comments from several different researchers and from all research traditions – even though there have been a few repeaters whom the media have turned into experts on everything that smells of COVID-19 – regardless of their narrow field of research.
It’s been almost like a long-lasting ‘Folkemøde’ (Danish festival for democracy and dialogue, ed.), where people have met each other through a more direct dialogue – citizens, politicians, media and experts.
Photo: Lars Skaaning for SDU.