SciComm Corner – Eight lessons COVID-19 can teach us about science communication
Article written by Kelleigh Greene
Eight lessons COVID-19 can teach us about science communication
Since the discovery of the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 in December 2019, science has taken the centre stage of everyone’s lives. Virologists, epidemiologists, and other health scientists have become daily features in the media, while politicians and the public are turning to science to answer important questions. Scientists have rallied to answer these questions in a race against the clock, where every day of inaction means a matter of life and death for potentially thousands of families.
But science doesn’t happen overnight. Measures to counteract and slow the spread of the virus have had to be enacted despite many uncertainties. People have had to adapt to new habits and behaviours while under unprecedented psychological stress from fear of the unknown and disruption to their daily lives.
Responding to global health crises inevitably involves an intersection of science, politics, and socioeconomics. Effective science communication is at the heart of this intersection, but is uniquely challenging in a rapidly evolving situation. The successes – and failures – of COVID-19 messaging holds valuable lessons in how to communicate science to increase trust, prompt large-scale behavioural changes, and help to alleviate fear and panic. I’ll discuss eight of these lessons below.
Lesson 1: Communicate the role and limitations of science
While science is key to illuminating pathways out of the COVID-19 pandemic, positioning science as the only factor in decision-making is inaccurate. Science alone cannot inform policy decisions. Science serves society within the context of politics, values, priorities, and economic considerations. Governments balance these (sometimes conflicting) needs when making decisions. Effectively communicating how science guides policy – and where its capabilities end – can improve the transparency of the decision-making process, increase accountability of the decision-makers, and ultimate help to maintain long-term public trust in science and policies.
Lesson 2: Communicate uncertainties
The UK Government has stated regularly that measures it has enacted – such as lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures – are ‘following the science’. This paints a picture of science as absolute, incontestable, and unambiguous. In reality, science is constantly evolving as new evidence arises. This is especially true for rapidly-evolving or newly emergent scientific issues.
Although many members of the public and politicians have little knowledge or experience of the scientific method, people have a greater capacity to handle uncertainties in risk management than they are given credit for. By communicating what is known, what is still unknown, and how science is working towards obtaining answers, people are better able to adapt to changes necessitated as our scientific understanding of COVID-19 develops.
Lesson 3: Tailor messages to the target audience
Accepting facts often has little to do with the facts themselves. Science communication that puts people at the heart of the message has a greater impact and is more memorable. However, since people are not a homogenous mass, targeted communication that embeds regional, cultural and social norms within a clear narrative can influence how people respond to the message.
Additionally, COVID-19 has highlighted how people across the globe access information. By identifying the channels through which individual communities gather information – e.g. news outlets, social media, or messaging apps – reach can be improved.
Lesson 4: Use trusted voices to deliver the message
The right information is important, but evidence from around the world suggests that using the right messenger is just as important. People are more likely to remember the messenger. Trusted voices, such as local community leaders, local support groups, or religious leaders, can act to amplify public health messages within local communities, and are therefore more effective in prompting behavioural changes. Local trusted voices improve the immediacy of the message, provide a sense of familiarity, and help to increase a sense of personal control in times of uncertainty – social factors that have all been shown to shape perceptions and response.
Lesson 5: Appeal to moral and social responsibilities
People are more likely to cooperate with behavioural changes when they believe others are cooperating. Therefore, communicating social norms is a key strategy, especially when it is not readily apparent whether other people are adhering to behavioural changes. Reinforcing that following measures to control COVID-19 is the right and moral thing to do can help people to feel confident in their new attitudes and increase their sense of certainty in their actions.
Conversely, messaging from news media tends toward sensationalism. While calling out offenders breaking the rules may lead to increased confidence in the right behaviour through public shaming, it may also act to erode public trust.
Lesson 6: Avoid sowing the seeds of division
The science surrounding COVID-19 has been developing rapidly and very publicly. While scientists themselves are accustomed to scientific disagreements and debate, the public may not recognise this as a natural part of the scientific method, fuelling confusion. Although it is important to convey scientific uncertainties, representing scientific opinion as scientific fact should be avoided.
Additionally, polarisation in rhetoric by political parties can divide public reaction to a health crisis. For example, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USA Democratic politicians focused more on public health and worker threats in their posts on social media, while the USA Republican politicians focused more on the impacts to businesses. In a poll conducted by Gallup on around 1000 USA adults during the same period, 73% of Democrat partisans indicated that they were worried about coronavirus exposure, in comparison to 42% of Republican partisans indicating the same. In contrast, cross-party support of measures enacted by the New Zealand Government may have helped to fuel the public’s greater acceptance and confidence in the COVID-19 response.
Lesson 7: Open a dialogue between experts and public
Successes from around the world highlight the importance of opening a productive dialogue between scientists and the public. Platforms where members of the public can discuss and ask questions from knowledgeable scientists can help to dispel myths and improve public trust. For example, the semi-entertainment, semi-documentary style ‘Plandemic’ video shared widely across the internet fuelled conspiracy theories and stoked mistrust. Many scientists, however, used the hype as an opportunity to open productive discourse in comment sections and forums, debunking myths, providing reliable and accurate resources, and answering questions.
Lesson 8: Provide prophylactic treatment of misinformation
The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said, ‘We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.’ The ways in which people gather information has changed dramatically since the last health crisis of this magnitude. With this unprecedented access to information, misinformation can spread faster than the virus. Conspiracy theories provide people with proportionally large causes for a large crisis, and provide certainty where there is none. Because conspiracy theories are belief-based rather than fact-based, they are stubbornly immune to evidence. Repeating erroneous claims to debunk them may have the unintended consequence of spreading the misinformation by increasing its visibility.
John Cook, an expert in countering the techniques used in science denial, suggests that inoculating people against misinformation can be achieved through messaging consisting of two parts: (1) a warning about the threat of misinformation, and (2) clear counter-arguments refuting the myth. Pre-arming people against misinformation may be more effective than trying to dispel myths after they have already taken root.
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For over a year-and-a-half, countries worldwide have been trying to manage the outbreak of COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic came as a surprise for most people. In many ways, the virus reminded us of just how powerful and unpredictable nature can be.