What the pandemic has taught us about science communication

On a rain-soaked day, thousands marched on Washington DC to fight for science funding and scientific analysis in politics

Poor communication of scientific information is holding up progress towards ending the pandemic Image: Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Junaid Nabi
Senior Healthcare Researcher, Harvard Business School
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  • Too often during the COVID-19 pandemic, poor communication by scientists and experts has led to the low take-up of measures that could have saved lives.
  • This is having a significant impact on progress in tackling the pandemic, in the US and elsewhere.
  • Scientists and healthcare leaders need to focus on developing clarity and empathy, as these are the key qualities for effective communication in a crisis.
  • Good communication skills deter conflict, create a sense of collective endeavor, and ultimately save lives.

Public behaviour since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of good communication from experts and scientists. Too often, ineffective communication has led to a poor take-up of measures that could have saved lives.

The debate around masks is one example. There was some initial concern around the limited supply of masks, but scientists should have been transparent about the evolving situation, clearly stating that evidence was emerging on mask effectiveness, which might lead to guidelines changing in the future. Instead, many made definitive statements prematurely, especially on social media, which ultimately fueled public reluctance to wear masks, even after more information was available.

Similarly, unclear communication about the risks of using socially distanced outdoor spaces led to misplaced moral outrage about people visiting the beach. More recently, confusion and misinformation about the efficacy of the various vaccines led to the Mayor of Detroit turning away thousands of doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine destined for residents of the city.

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There is no doubt that poor communication about science is having a serious impact on progress in tackling the pandemic, in the US and elsewhere. To combat this, scientists need to be more thoughtful and proactive about how they communicate information to the public. It is clearly not effective to share information as it is packaged within the scientific literature; communicating with the general public requires a different approach. The pandemic has taught us some important lessons about how to do this.

First, scientists must understand that changing public behavior is not just about providing information – it is also about empathy. Research on vaccine hesitancy by epidemiologists and social scientists has demonstrated that it is not a lack of information but a core set of moral convictions that drive people to refuse vaccination. Research suggests that when scientists acknowledge the negative impact on people's social lives of public health interventions such as social distancing, people are more likely to accept them and comply. Studies also show that healthcare leaders are more effective if they demonstrate empathy.

Chart showing the types of misinformation about COVID circulating online
The spread of misinformation is holding up efforts to tackle the pandemic Image: www.statistica.com

The second lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that scientists must not assume that their audience has the same level of knowledge as the speaker or writer. This assumption – what the psychologist Steven Pinker has called ‘the curse of knowledge’ – is a common cognitive blind spot among academics. It is essential that scientists use clear language, and avoid jargon. While academics and scientists commonly communicate through publications in academic journals and books—platforms that essentially require jargon for acceptance – this is counter-productive when communicating scientific findings to the general audience.

This was demonstrated in an influential study by communication researchers at Ohio State University, who investigated how the use of jargon affected engagement with science. The study found that people who read about topics from self-driving cars to 3D printing and surgical robots in a jargon-filled text reported being less interested, compared to those who read about the same issues in a clear language. In the context of vaccination in particular, the use of technical terms such as “efficacy rates” has created confusion. More effective messaging could have focused on the percentage likelihood of a vaccinated person getting infected.

A chart showing the sources of information used by vaccine hesitant, resistant and accepting groups
Unclear communication around COVID vaccines has contributed to public hesitancy Image: Nature.com

Of course, science and medicine are dynamic professions, and information and evidence change constantly. But this should not prevent researchers from communicating their evidence - even when some of it is ambiguous or subject to change. A recent study showed that people are no less likely to trust information that includes an element of uncertainty and ambiguity. The study authors also found it was effective to use numerical ranges when communicating uncertainty around data.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown science at its best – witness the rapid development of the vaccines. But it has also revealed the limitations of medical research, showing the public that evidence is often accumulated in incremental, ambiguous, and time-consuming ways. In a pandemic, when access to information is required for making critical decisions, such limitations can lead to frustration and conflict.

For this very reason, health leaders and experts need to communicate about science with clarity and empathy. These are the qualities that deter conflict and foster a sense of collective endeavour. More than ever before, how we communicate is probably as important as what we communicate—because our lives may depend on it.

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