There is no more important time to get science communication right than during a pandemic. But, says Melanie Challenger, that is harder than it seems…
Over the evolving timescale of this pandemic, what has played out before us is the scramble of governments and public health bodies to work out how best to convey information to their audiences.
What governments want in a crisis is for their peoples to cooperate. But what information will persuade people to act the right way?
Governments have deployed statistics and epidemiological models, both deliberately and unintentionally, as scare tactics to persuade. But making existential threats salient might not induce the best kinds of cooperation in the long run. There may be a fine line here between informing people about the seriousness of the situation and scaring people senseless. Individuals now receive death counts from COVID-19 in real-time. The number of cases is tracked by the hour. We assume that people have a right to this information. That may be so. But if the information is supposed to provide a public service during a crisis, it’s worth knowing what such information can do to people.
There’s a wealth of research from the social sciences on human behaviours when existential threats or mortality are made salient. We undergo physiological changes – stress hormone levels alter, heart rate can alter, blood pressure can modulate, along with our sensitive neurochemistry. These subtle, invisible changes in response to a threat can cause alterations in mood, and in sleeping and eating patterns. This can be exacerbated by other stressful circumstances.
It would be nice to believe that humans are simply rational in the face of such threats. Not so. Humans are social animals. We have evolved methods of responding to stresses that require social closeness. We mitigate stresses through proximity. This is a significant challenge when we’re being asked to socially distance – the exact opposite of what comes naturally to most of us. Fear and uncertainty can be a toxic combination for those with mental health conditions or pre-existing worries. And sometimes it is all too much. One of Germany’s finance ministers, Thomas Schaefer committed suicide in late March, troubled by potential economic consequences. Earlier in the month, nineteen-year-old Emily Owen took her own life over fears of the pandemic. There are other reports from across the world of coronavirus-related suicides.
The way science is reported in a crisis matters.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, has repeatedly warned against an ‘infodemic’ as contagious as the virus in question. This proliferation of information can muffle the simple messages that are needed. And an overreliance on numbers can have unhelpful consequences, even for those who ought to understand the science.
What we don’t want is for science and government to work together in a way that lacks transparency or is condescending. But scientists and those in governance have a responsibility to be pragmatic about the unknowns. Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty has repeatedly warned that we don’t know anything for certain.
Priming people with data they don’t fully understand or with data that frightens might be less effective than priming people with the positive ends we are trying to achieve. A reassuring goal may be more persuasive than a terrifying reason.
Melanie Challenger is a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and a writer and researcher across environmental history and philosophy