How to share the science of COVID-19 in uncertain timesJune, 2020
“I have friends on social media sharing misinformation about Covid-19. Do you have tips on how to talk to them?”
That’s a question routinely faced by our partners at r/science, a reddit community of over 24 million subscribers who discuss new scientific research every day.
We all face this question as we try to support our families, friends, and communities at a time of uncertain risks and competing advice. Effectively communicating scientific knowledge is hard; simply giving people information does not mean they will grasp it or, as importantly, believe it. Correcting misinformation is even trickier and can sometimes backfire, leaving confusion and inaccurate understandings more entrenched.
Since science-based information is critical to people’s health and well-being during the pandemic, we all need effective ways to talk about that knowledge.
Learning from the science of communication
Many scholars have studied effective way to communicate knowledge during risky times. Working with r/science moderators and scientific advisors, CAT Lab surveyed a large slice of that literature and a number of “best practices” guides to identify five of the best techniques for effective conversations about science.
The good news is that if you do want to inform your friends, you already have a head start. One of the most persuasive positions is to be someone who can be trusted. By starting with a foundation of trust, you are already a more effective communicator than many experienced speakers. When you talk with friends and acquaintances, you already have a head start.
Five evidence-based techniques for effective science communication
Listen first – and let it show.
To hear something, people first need to feel they are being heard. Before entering a conversation, listen to your audience – to hear their concerns and gauge their understanding. And don’t be afraid to let it show: “I get your point that…” “To add to what [name] said about …”
Express a common interest or concern.
People naturally trust those who are “like” them, whether because they share the same experiences or have similar views. Expressing that similarity can also establish common ground for building understanding: “Like you, I am concerned…” “I’m also a parent…”
Share information, don’t try to change minds.
This may seem like a fine line, but it’s a crucial one. People bristle when they sense someone’s trying to change their mind and distrust scientists they think have an agenda. The more you can simply – and dispassionately – give information, the more likely someone will hear and accept it.
Keep it simple, scientist.
We’re not advocating “dumbing down” science, but the simpler you can present information, the better it will land. You will get far by doing three things: 1) avoiding jargon, 2) avoiding using stats or many numbers and 3) making no more than three points.
Keep your cool and resist the snark.
We get it. You’re talking to people who may be misinformed and may question your information or even be rude, but do your best to stick to your goal (for example, sharing information) and don’t give in to the snark, no matter how subtle. It’s the quickest way to lose your audience.
CAT Lab thanks Jennifer E. Below, PhD, John Besley, PhD, Elizabeth Thomas Crocker, PhD, and volunteer reddit mods for their guidance in the creation of this document.
If you’re not certain you know the current best science on COVID-19, here are some reliable up-to-date resources.
- CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus
- Harvard School of Public Health: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/viswanathlab/covid-19/
- John’s Hopkins: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/
Helpful Research for Further Reading
If you’re interested to learn more, you might find inspiration and ideas in this far-from-exhaustive list of research on science communication.
Allum, N. C. (2007). An empirical test of competing theories of hazard-related trust: The case of GM food. Risk Analysis, 27(4), 935-946.
Chan, M. P. S., Jones, C. R., Hall Jamieson, K., & Albarracín, D. (2017). Debunking: A meta-analysis of the psychological efficacy of messages countering misinformation. Psychological science, 28(11), 1531-1546.
Fiske, S. T., & Dupree, C. (2014). Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13593-13597.
Gesser-Edelsburg, A., Diamant, A., Hijazi, R., & Mesch, G. S. (2018). Correcting misinformation by health organizations during measles outbreaks: A controlled experiment. PloS one, 13(12).
Leshner, A., Scheufele, D., Bostrom, A., de Bruin, W. B., Dietz, T., Hallman, W., Henig, J., Hornik, R., Maynard, A., Nisbet, M. & Peters, E. (2016). Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: Washington, DC, USA.