Accurate communication of science is imperative for public trust
From an early age we are taught the adage “actions speak louder than words.” However, if we have learned anything about science over the past six months, it is this: words do matter, and they matter because of how much they influence actions.
The misinterpretation and misinformation regarding virtually every aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Just thinking about the numerous conflicting reports that have been made about the effectiveness of masks, the need for ventilators, statistical data on infection, hospitalization, and mortality rates, the way the virus spreads, and the vaccines and treatments that could potentially bring this crisis to an end is mind boggling. In fact, just re-reading that sentence makes your head spin.
These unverified reports are subsequently highlighted everywhere, from public health briefings to academic journals to 24/7 cable news and the latest social media posts from your neighborhood virus experts.
Despite the unverified nature of most of these reports, the public hangs on every word, making decisions based on what they believe to be facts, but are actually the not ready for prime-time products of ever evolving science.
The result? A confused and exhausted public that either does not know who to trust or is so entrenched in their beliefs that they are not willing to listen to new or more scientifically verifiable data.
The consequences are vast, as we have seen with the varying degrees of public policy decisions made in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The question we must ask ourselves is: who is responsible for ensuring that people understand that the determination of scientific truth is a journey not a destination, that it evolves over time, and it must be tested, replicated, and peer reviewed before it can be considered fact?
The answer? Anyone with a platform to influence others, most importantly scientists themselves, the media, public health officials, and finally, the leaders tasked with decision making on complex and evolving scientific issues.
To you, the message must be clear: you must choose your words carefully and communicate rationally and clearly, free of political agenda or other bias, especially when addressing a frightened and skeptical public, most of whom have little or no scientific training.
For the public to trust science, they must trust those who bring the science to them. Now is the time for public policymakers, physicians, scientists, and business leaders to commit to stopping the spread of misinformation by seeking evidence-based scientific decision making that will allow us to not only conquer Covid-19, but to heal the wounds of distrust that divide us, and set the stage for a more fair and just future for the nation—and for science.