The pandemic that changed science communication

Posted on Sunday, April 12, 2020

Author: Jacob Berkowitz

Jacob Berkowitz

Writer in Residence, ISSP, uOttawa
Author and Performer

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is the world’s most widespread and longest running case of shared public science and health communication. One lasting impact is that it will change science popularizing.

First some context. The pandemic hits at a time when the common framework that guides science communication is in flux. The phenomenal rise of social media, the decimation of traditional information gatekeepers, and the triumph of President Trump, who’s turned “fact” into four-letter-word, put the nail in the coffin of the already outworn deficit model of science communication i.e., fill the human bucket with more facts and people will get it—whatever it is.

Instead, many practitioners point to cultural cognition as the new model for understanding and guiding science communication. Cultural cognition posits that cultural cognitive framework (story) trumps facts. This model is used to explain why such issues as belief in human-caused climate change skews along Republic-Democrat lines in the United States.

COVID-19 has dramatically highlighted that this cultural-level perspective is way too “10,000-foot” to help understand individual cognition and decision making based on science and health information. As we attempt to take lessons from the current crisis, we need to get much more granular in our psychosocial analysis to understand individual evidence-based decision making.

Here are five elements I’ve observed that need to be part of any model of science communication in action:

1. Address variation in risk perception and tolerance: The pandemic has highlighted that there is enormous individual variance in risk perception. I know from my experience as a wilderness tripping leader that I’m highly risk averse. I’m the one who’ll empty my canoe before shooting the rapid. Early in the pandemic, I was surprised to realize I was feeling dread risk. At the same time, I’ve spoken with friends who feel a minimum sense of risk, and who don’t physically embody the experience as I do.

2. Immediate social context: How we interpret information and act on it is deeply shaped by our domestic social context. The pandemic has highlighted both our need for social connection, and similarly need for personal space and independence. COVID-19 has hit at time when for the first time in Canadian history one-person households are the most common form of household. About 14% of all Canadian adults live alone. In some cases, the forced isolation puts enormous psychological pressure on individuals to act when they otherwise might not, for example to go for the mail, to buy milk, to go out for a drive-through coffee. Conversely, negative home social environments, notably domestic violence, push individuals to make “best-case” choices, with possible COVID-19 transmission the lesser of two evils.

3. The Maslow Hierarchy Factors: When it comes to “logical” behaviour based on known information, individuals will act in response to pressing personal survival needs. For example, we cannot rely on self-reporting in an emergency. As a fictitious example, the 18-year-old in Morocco asked if she has any COVID-19 symptoms before boarding a flight back to Canada, and believing that she will be barred from boarding if she truthfully answers “yes”, believes it is in her best interest (i.e. logical) to say no. Similarly, the person who is alcohol dependent (a major issue among Canadians) and alone may well go to the liquor store regardless of their COVID-like symptoms.

4. Sexual desire: While not usually a core topic in most science and health communication, the forced isolation and separation of millions of teens and young adults in springtime has brought the topic to a head in terms of how facts are interpreted. New York public health officials tried to flatten this curve by promoting COVID-aware safe sex. Social distancing is affected by the same ego projections that occur in young love – the way we see not the person but our desired concept of them. As a result, “two metres” isn’t a mathematical absolute, but becomes a qualitative, malleable concept reframed by more pressing needs.

5. Attitude to authority: As much previous work by ISSP colleagues has documented in relation to Canadian energy policy, our attitudes to authority, particularly trust in authority, plays a big role in how information is filtered. For example, do you readily trust in the value of collective, government-led action?  In Italy, where there’s a long-standing distrust of government officials, health officials addressed this issue directly, pleading with Italians to trust and obey official edicts related to COVID-19. What we’re seeing is that these issues of trust and authority are highly complex. In the United States, socialized capitalism is currently widely celebrated, but not public health care. One area I find particularly interesting is the extent to which we trust that a democratic government’s response will be better than a totalitarian one in dealing “truthfully” with the pandemic. There’s been much criticism of the Chinese government’s repressive response to the pandemic, yet the Trump administration’s response has also been grounded in lies, obfuscation, denial, and deflection, all of which have contributed to the U.S. being the pandemic’s current epicentre.

As we continue to reflect on the psychosocial aspects of our pandemic experience, and make sense of it, other aspects will emerge as playing key roles in how we share and interpret information. All of this will be important fodder for guiding a pandemic-informed refresh in science and health communication.

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