Aisha Tanvir, a member of QF’s Communication Directorate, writes about how an increased appreciation for science might be the biggest winner of the year 2020
2020 was a strange year for science. It has been questioned, celebrated and also villainized. Some claimed it mankind's savior – the only thing that will bring life back to normalcy, while others claimed it doesn’t know what it's doing.
Some say science is not accessible and that scientists are to be blamed for it. They are the reason science stays locked up in its ivory tower
In 2019, the World Health Organization declared that misinformation about vaccines was among the largest threats to global health. Infectious diseases like measles, which were almost eradicated, are resurfacing, particularly in the U.S. The straightforward explanation behind the return of measles – a disease once almost completely eradicated – is that an increasing number of people are refusing the vaccine that protects against it.
Polarizing views about science have long existed. Science has a PR problem. Why?
Some say science is not accessible and that scientists are to be blamed for it. They are the reason science stays locked up in its ivory tower. When scientists communicate, it is often loaded with technical jargon and statistics, making it inaccessible to those with a non-scientific background, sometimes even to those with a science background. Then the media comes in, acting as the link between science and society, but they often exaggerate or overplay the findings and sometimes disregard them in the interest of sensational headlines.
The public is not innocent either – their fault lies in forming opinions based on reading news headlines alone which quite frankly is a dangerous thing to do, particularly when it comes to science news. Yes, you are entitled to an opinion but not if it's based solely on headlines. Before forming an opinion on a topic, do your research on it – read findings in journal articles and speak to experts. Reading news headlines is just not enough.
When questioned about what their source of information is, people often answer social media. Social media, itself, is not the problem. It is a useful and powerful tool if used the right way. The issue with social media is that it is unregulated; it has no editorial policies. Anybody can say anything with zero consequences.
What all of this leads to is a public that is only half-informed, sometimes even misinformed. A vicious cycle in which nobody wins, but somehow science loses.
The feeling of science not being clear or trustworthy stems from the uncertainty in science. It is common to hear things like, “scientists say something new every few days; their findings change every other week” or that “science is not certain”.
Uncertainty is an essential part of science, we can’t shy away from communicating it, fearing that it will generate mistrust
Comments like these show that some of us are sadly missing the whole point of science. Science is not meant to be about absolute certainty; science is a journey. It starts at a point of complete uncertainty, where we know nothing, then we embark on a journey with science where we go from knowing absolutely nothing to learning more and more with time. As science progresses, the uncertainty diminishes bit by bit, albeit never to a point where we are 100 percent certain.
Uncertainty is an essential part of science, we can’t shy away from communicating it, fearing that it will generate mistrust. Presenting uncertain aspects of science as certain can decrease trust in science if those aspects change, which in science there is always a high chance they will.
Uncertainty, particularly in science, does not imply unreliability. It is merely a reflection of the probability of a particular outcome. Think of it as taking a blurry picture, you know what the picture should look like, but it doesn’t quite look like it. But, despite its blurriness, it is still recognizable.
Here is an example, following the new COVID-19 strain identified in the U.K. in December 2020, within 24-48 hours, almost everybody with social media was talking about how the virus had mutated. Somehow, without an understanding of virus replication or any scientific evidence, many people were under the impression that this was the first mutation of the virus and that a mutation certainly meant it was more aggressive than the original virus.
Viruses replicate very fast, and high rates of replication introduce room for error. Just think of a copy machine, if you make 10 copies of a page, they will likely all come out as exact copies. However, if you make 100 or 1000 copies, you are likely to get a few imperfect copies. This is exactly what gives rise to a mutation. The more the virus replicates, the higher the chances of a mutation.
We owe it to ourselves to be responsible news consumers and not form opinions by merely reading news headlines
With the SARS-COV-2 virus having been around for close to a year now and at the speed at which it replicates, it had almost certainly mutated a while ago. Making this not the first mutation of the virus but the first to have been identified. It essentially was a matter of "the more you look, the more you find" because the U.K. had been intensively sequencing the virus, and they were able to pick it up.
So, keeping this mind, could several, if not all, news headlines that followed the identification of the new variant be written to be more fact-driven and less fear-mongering? Yes, 100 percent. Why weren’t they? My guess is because they wouldn’t have produced the same reaction.
We owe it to ourselves to be responsible news consumers and not form opinions by merely reading news headlines and, most importantly, understand the relationship between science and uncertainty. This has never been truer than it is in the ongoing pandemic, with scientists racing against time to be able to combat the virus, media outlets providing updates 24/7, and social media spreading information like wildfire, accurate or otherwise, at breakneck speed.
It’s important to remember that even the best of science communication is only effective when people are open to listening to what scientists have to say
The pandemic has placed scientists in the spotlight like never before. Forced out of their comfort zones and asked to communicate in a language that was not laden with acronyms and probabilities – a massive challenge for them. Answers were demanded from them with little appreciation of the fact that scientific knowledge takes time and lots of confirmatory evidence by several groups to reach a consensus, especially in a new field like this one.
Scientists rose to the challenge. They appeared on TV, radio, print, and social media.
It’s important to remember that even the best of science communication is only effective when people are open to listening to what scientists have to say. So, let's read the articles and not just the headlines. Let's read with the intent to inform ourselves rather than pick sides. Let's take the time to form evidence-based opinions. If we can do this, we will have made huge strides in making science an organic part of decision-making and ensuring it improves public welfare.
If one legacy the SARS-COV-2 pandemic leaves behind is an increased appreciation for science and scientists both, then that might be among science’s biggest wins of 2020.
Aisha Tanvir is a scientist-turned-writer. A materials scientist by degree, Aisha traded a career in scientific research for science writing. Instead of writing about her own research, Aisha now helps researchers communicate their research to a wider non-scientist audience.