#FEMSmicroBlog: COVID-19 and scientific misinformation – when two pandemics meet

16-05-2020

The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the serious consequences of a second ongoing pandemic: the misinterpretation or outright misuse of scientific information. The authors of this blog Tatiana Pinto (@LabPinto) and Maria Bonatelli (@mlbonatelli) argue that scientists need to be more at the forefront to stand against scientific misinformation. #QuarantineDiary

Before this unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, people had rarely been so eagerly needing updated and accurate information about the disease, and many use social media as the main source. Although scientists themselves, scientific societies and organisations such as FEMS have been providing different channels with high-quality scientific data, the communication gap between scientists and the general public has never been so obvious.

On Social media, scientific misinformation can spread like a virus – and be equally harmful. 

Chat about science, do not teach it

Science has never been a trivial subject in daily conversations, and scientific communication is generally not a required skill in the curriculum of scientists. In this scenario, scientifically proven data may be neglected in favor of fake news, as in the end it is just easier for people to believe in what they can understand – and this might be incorrect information bringing false hope and even harm. Timothy Caulfield, a researcher at the University of Alberta, stated in an article published by Nature that scientists need “to provide simple and shareable content explaining why this hijacking of real research is inaccurate and scientifically dishonest.”

But how can we effectively promote scientific literacy and public engagement with science? Delivering an informative, clear, and engaging message is one of the most challenging tasks a scientist might have. The first step to achieve it, though, is by knowing your audience. Having a well-established target is key for success in science communication (SciComm) – and besides knowing who you are talking to, it is also equally important to be aware of how much they previously know and how much they care about your scientific topic. In addition to modulate the language (for example, avoid jargon!), we need to emotionally engage the public in the message. In an effective SciComm message, scientists need to “chat” about science rather than “teach” science.  

We need scientists armed with the right tools

If you are a scientist with no SciComm background, there are currently many valuable online resources that can help in this regard. Sarah Wettstadt and Joseph Brooks Shuttleworth presented the dos and don’ts to prevent sharing of misinformation, specifically designed for microbiologists. Likewise, different articles have explored aspects of using different social media platforms for SciComm purposes, including Twitter. In addition, many online SciComm courses are freely available and easily searchable nowadays.

Scientists are needed to combat fake news online – for this, it essential that they have the right tools at hand.

The efforts being made by different scientists to fight the current misinformation pandemic are definitely important, but in order to ensure that the next generation of scientists is perfectly able to act as communicators as well, we need to include SciComm in the scientific curriculum. Communication skills should be developed along with scientific training in the academic path, as both require practice and experience to improve. An interesting article written by Ayelet Baram-Tsabari and Bruce V. Lewenstein addresses the different learning goals that should be considered when designing a SciComm course. Besides defining content and methods, promoting student engagement and motivation in the subject is equally important.

Misinformation can be as harmful as the disease itself – the public needs scientists harmed with good communication skills in the frontline of this pandemic too.

About the authors of this blog

Maria Bonatelli is a Biologist from Brazil and did her Master and PhD degrees at University of São Paulo/Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Usp/Esalq, Brazil) trying to understand how microorganisms interact with the world, and among themselves, in different contexts. She is currently a postdoc fellow and a collaborating professor at Usp/Esalq and her research focus on plant-microbe interaction to improve agricultural practices. Maria is very passionate about science communication. She is a scientific journalism specialist from University of Campinas (Brazil) and collaborates on different SciComm projects – from blogs to podcasts. She is also a volunteer for FEMS in the Translation Team.

Tatiana Pinto is an Associate Professor of Microbiology at Instituto de Microbiologia Paulo de Goes (IMPG), Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Brazil. Her research is focused on the better understanding of virulence and antimicrobial resistance traits among Streptococcus agalactiae and Streptococcus pneumoniae isolates, by uncovering novel aspects of the biology of these microorganisms that are important to trace the epidemiological evolution of epidemic and sporadic clones, as well as to help designing improved therapeutic and prophylactic measures against pediatric streptococcal infections. Tatiana is also an enthusiastic of public engagement activities and has been involved in science communication training of students in Brazil.

About this blog section

In #QuarantineDiary for the #FEMSmicroBlog, microbiologists tell us about the challenges and opportunities from a personal and professional (development) perspective during the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. These can range from a list of useful resources to keep learning, to how researchers can offer their help, to a personal view of current events.

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