Science communication in the time of pandemics

person holding petri dish
Photo by Anna Shvets on

Recently, science communication (scicomm) has gained a lot more respect within the scientific community than it historically has had. Young (mainly, but not exclusively, female) PhD students and recent graduates have been using social media platforms like Instagram to communicate their research and other scientific findings to the general public in a more accessible, bitesized way. Many posts including selfies or science related makeup looks. Both this new wave of young (mainly female) scicommers using unconventional methods, and the more traditional scicommers have faced critique from within the hallowed halls of academia. At the same time, science communication has been taken more seriously, is seen as an integral part of a scientist’s job, and has even been turned into university courses. It seems that, perhaps especially during the pandemic, the scicommers have their work cut out for them.

Throughout this pandemic, many countries’ politicians have been criticised for unclear and muddled communications surrounding the novel coronavirus. Beyond social distancing rules and lockdown regulations, the uncertain and novel nature of SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes means that the scientific evidence is ever changing and expanding as days go by. It is a “truth” universally acknowledged that the uncertainty that goes along with the scientific process, particularly when not or poorly communicated, can sometimes cause people to throw the towel in and disbelieve everything scientists say. Even in the best of times scientists and science communicators (these categories sometimes but not always overlap) have trouble communicating uncertainty. This task can sometimes seem Sisyphean in a pandemic caused by a virus we are learning more about in real time.

The science communicators, science journalists, science podcasters, and scientists with Twitter accounts have their work cut out for them. The task of monitoring a virus, the resulting illness, explaining the science, and at times informing government policies is for many an unenvied position to be in. Muddled communication, such as that surrounding the use of face masks by the general public or the initial uncertainty surrounding the human-to-human transmissibility of the virus, can cause resentment and distrust in the general public. But at the same time, some science journalism and science communication by the new rockstars of the scientific world (that is: virologists and epidemiologists) has showed us how important scicomm is in times like these.

Scientists are used to talking amongst each other in terms of uncertainty. There is discussion on ‘suggestions’ ‘probabilities’, ‘confidence intervals’ and ‘statistical significance’ with an ease that makes it more difficult to communicate to the general public when you become so used to speaking in jargon. Yet, as we can see, communicating science effectively can have life or death consequences when it pertains to public health. Research suggests that being clear about uncertainty does not necessarily harm the public’s perception of science and scientists, and so perhaps the best way to deal with uncertainty in the midsts of this unprecedented crisis is to be honest and to embrace it.

Uncertainty is a fact of life, albeit an uncomfortable one, and is just as much a byproduct of the scientific process as it is of living.

It seems that whether we use Instagram, find newfound fame on Twitter, use traditional print media or communicate science to just the people around us, the one undeniable fact is that there is so much we do not know yet about the current crisis we find ourselves in. The only thing we can do is take on board the changing science and eventually we will likely be able to have a fuller and more accurate picture of what is happening surrounding the pandemic. Scicommers are, as a whole, already more adept at communicating science’s uncertainty, but the SARS-CoV-2 induced pandemic adds another level of pressure to get it right – or at least as right as possible. Uncertainty is a fact of life, albeit an uncomfortable one, and is just as much a byproduct of the scientific process as it is of living. Scicomm is hard in the best of times, but as laypeople and non-experts perhaps, however hard it is, the best thing we can do is embrace the in-between.

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