Communication mistakes undermine the credibility of scientists

Photo by Martin Sanchez
Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Derek Ng,
Deborah Prabhu
and Allan Bonner

Crises make for strange bedfellows. It took the COVID-19 pandemic to forge a bond between journalists and epidemiologists.

These two occupations have little in common. Journalist detest jargon and are admonished by editors for wordy prose. Epidemiologists publish in medical and scientific journals using the jargon and terminology of their profession.

Derek Ng
Derek Ng

They may present scientific results that describe how an illness moves through a population, identify new risk factors for a disease, or predict and forecast diseases and deaths. But these results can be couched with caution because epidemiologists worry a great deal about their assumptions, biases in the data or models, and any other threat to the validity of their work.

Journalists, on the other hand, are promoted and prized for fast work, writing that’s conversational, stories that make definitive judgments and predictions that make sense to the average person.

Expecting these two groups to become kindred spirits seems a bridge too far. But it’s happening because of this pandemic. Here’s why:

Deborah Prabhu
Deborah Prabhu

Epidemiologists carefully study the causes of disease and what might improve human health, so this can be slow work. A decimal point or fraction of a percentage makes a big difference. It takes time to collect good data in enough quantity to make sense of what’s going on. Models are meticulously constructed and must be commensurate to the strong data they’re built on. A great paper on a hot topic can boost a career.

But epidemiologists have been forced during the pandemic to provide instant advice. They’ve been asked about things that haven’t been studied, aren’t in medical journals or, if there is data, it’s not easily and quickly accessible.

But the show must go on, so epidemiologists have made instant pronouncements on masks, gloves, social distancing, pets, incubation periods, lifespan of the virus, treatment, cures and so on.

It should be no surprise that even these careful scientists made mistakes on the fly.

Allan Bonner on scientific credibility during the pandemic

Journalists know this will be the case. One documentary on journalism by the National Film Board of Canada is called History on the Run. That’s also the title of a book by newscaster Knowlton Nash. It’s “on the run” because all the facts or even the truth may be hard to catch.

News was called “the first, rough, draft of history” by Phil Graham of the Washington Post. The second draft may contain fewer errors and a more complete perspective.

But there may not be a second draft. The next day’s news may be on another topic and more interesting.

At least one other occupation knows there will be challenges and problems producing good work. The military use the term “fog of war.” Prussian Gen. Von Clausewitz, who died in 1831, wrote of “fog and friction” – the things you can’t know before a battle, things that change during the battle and things that will slow you down. Those might include actual fog, smoke from muskets, the weather, topography and others.

You don’t know what you won’t know. You don’t hear politicians, governments or scientists admitting this.

Von Clausewitz’s other relevant quote is: “Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult.” That’s what we’re finding in this pandemic.

Journalists and the military handle uncertainty well. Epidemiologists, not so much. All three are looking over the landscape and battlefield and explaining events and concepts in real time. This is a prescription for error.

Take the discussion about whether pets can transmit COVID-19. One epidemiologist is reported to have said “there’s no evidence that pets can transmit the disease.”

That may be true, in many ways. Maybe a study looked for the virus in the noses of a lot of household pets in a city and couldn’t detect any. Or a study may not have found any instances of an infected pet transmitting the disease to its owner. Or it may be that a study found no differences in infection rates between pet owners and non-pet owners. Or perhaps no one has studied or published anything on the topic.

But the “no evidence” remark would cause the average person to believe it had been studied and pets could not transmit the disease.

It turns out that pets can transmit the disease, so now there’s evidence.

Imagine a corporal telling the commander on the field of battle that there’s no evidence that the enemy is behind the hill:

Commander: “Did you go look?”

Corporal: “No, sir, but there’s still no evidence.”

Commander: “Did you send anyone to look?”

Corporal: “No sir, but I assure you there’s no evidence.”

The corporal, now a private, is factually accurate but the observation is irrelevant.

The discussion would go the same way in a newsroom with the assignment editor asking much the same questions and then sending out another journalist to do the story. That story would contain the words, “No one seems to know … it’s not immediately known …” or other fudging phrases.

But what does everybody who doesn’t know a particular fact know for sure? Don’t we all know that it’s best to be cautious?

Let’s go look over the hill, test the pets, find out what’s known and so on. In the meantime, soldiers could shoulder arms just to be on the safe side. Journalists can write that there are gaps in what we know and advise news consumers to stay tuned for more information.

Why not assume that pets can be infectious but that hand washing, cleaning and reasonable distancing may be good precautionary measures?

Unfortunately, the phrase “there is no evidence that …” has been used more frequently than is helpful. Once may be too much without additional necessary explanations.

Perhaps the most egregious example was the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaiming in early January 2020 that “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.”

Even though there was no evidence at the time, that didn’t mean the enemy wasn’t behind the hill. We know what happened next

These communication mistakes undermine the credibility of scientists at a time when trust is necessary to effectively combat the pandemic.

Public health professionals, like journalists, have a responsibility to share what they know, based on the information they have. Mistakes and errors may be made as we learn and study this virus. We’re humans trying to learn about and solve a human disease.

Both epidemiologists and journalists have a duty to not incite panic with overstated claims and need to take the time to explain cautiously and comprehensively.

Journalists know the importance of the pandemic; epidemiologists feel the pressure.

We need more discussions about how epidemiologists arrived at their conclusions and what the limitations are, along with clear directives for sensible action going forward.

Partnering with journalists and media to disseminate these messages without falling back on couched claims and nebulous statements is a good step toward establishing trust and credibility.

Dr. Derek Ng, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Deborah Prabhu, MBBS, graduated as a physician and worked in medicine in India before moving to Toronto. Dr. Allan Bonner, MSc, DBA, is a crisis manager based in Toronto.

Derek, Deborah and Allan are Troy Media Thought LeadersWhy aren’t you?

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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