Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Challenges of Science Communication in the 21st Century

Meteorologists like myself are on the front lines for science communication every day.  What other science profession has one of the most watched television channels (The Weather Channel), several minutes dedicated to the science in local news broadcasts, smart-phone apps, etc.?  We are on the public's "radar" every day.

So I've been watching the communication, response, and reaction to COVID-19 with more than a passing interest.  I see many of the similar issues at play for epidemiologists, health professionals, government agencies, politicians, and the public as we have prior to, during, and following high-impact weather events.

Many of the challenges that exist are not new.  First, scientific literacy is relatively low.  As noted by Carl Sagan:
"We live in society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology."
Second, there is strong anti-intellectualism in the United States, which was well described in a Newsweek article by Isaac Asimov in 1980:
"There is a cult of ignorance in the U.S., and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life."
As discussed in a 2011 article by Dane Claussen, this anti-intellectualism originates from several veins including religious (e.g., creationism), populist skepticism/distrust of experts (e.g., anti-vaccination), and practical (i.e., knowledge isn't important unless it leads to immediate material gain).

Finally, we have biases that we all suffer from including confirmation bias — the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way to confirm our preexisting beliefs — and tribalism — a way of thinking in which we are loyal to a social or political group.

Although not new, these challenges have evolved in a dangerous way in the digital era.  As noted by Del Vicario et al. in a 2016 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:
"Digital misinformation has become so pervasive in online social media that it has been listed by the [World Economic Forum] as one of the main threats to society...Most users tend to select and share contact related to a specific narrative and tend to ignore the rest"
A few additional perspectives based on my meteorological experiences and observation of the COVID-19 situation.

1. The dissemination of information is not linear.  In weather the National Weather Service and diseases the Center for Disease Control serve as "expert" sources for information and through their various partners (e.g., FEMA, Homeland Security, various emergency management groups, health organizations, etc.) ideally attempt to distill a consistent, evidence based message of the situation and response.  However, they do not control the narrative and in the modern digital age, people get their information from all sorts of nebulous sources of varying quality.  In some instances, these sources are nefarious.  This is why, when it comes to hazardous weather, I consistently preach the importance of relying on forecasts from the National Weather Service and the recommendations of emergency management groups.  Weather forecasting and epidemiology are not exact sciences and uncertainties exist, but the best course of action is to ignore the echo chamber and go to the most reliable sources of information.

2. Leadership matters.  Although nobody really controls the narrative, the President can strongly shape it.  Nobody recognizes this better than our current President, who has forcefully manipulated the media for years.  His contradictions of disease experts greatly fuel conspiracy theories and open windows for nefarious parties to feed the public false narratives.

3. The poor and vulnerable will suffer the most.  During natural disasters, the poor and vulnerable have the least capacity to take action and often pay the greatest price.  They have the least capacity to flee a hurricane, for example, and often live in homes or apartments (or cars) that are more vulnerable to winds and flooding.  Similarly, those less advantaged have less capacity to sit through a quarantine, work from home, pay for daycare when schools close, or seek appropriate medical treatment if they lack sufficient health insurance.

4. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.  Weather forecasting is not an exact science and as a result, a range of outcomes are possible with a potentially hazardous weather event.  One needs to consider the range of possible outcomes, including worst-case scenarios.  If there's a 10% chance of a 30 foot storm surge, one needs to prepare for that eventuality.  If the surge ends up being 15 feet, we're grateful.  COVID-19 is a new infectious disease making the rounds.  If we get our arms round this disease and can keep it contained, that's a victory, not a reflection of overhyping by experts.


  1. Great analysis, Jim. Thanks

  2. Yeah, a co-worker was quoting Dr Drew(Of FOX News and reality show SOBER House fame) yesterday about how "the media is over hyping this corona virus thing".....