By Elizabeth Lesko
From the anti-vaccination movement to the current panic over COVID-19, the mass media plays a critical role in providing information about medical science to the general population. While media coverage of medical research has the benefit of raising public awareness and therefore increases interest and potential funding for understudied areas, it also provides fertile ground for the spread of misinformation. The increased availability of instantaneous information using the internet combined with lack of identifying trustworthy sources has allowed incorrect information regarding medical topics to spread easily and be taken as seriously as what is correct. Luckily the underlying reasons for our current age of misinformation suggest a fairly straightforward solution: scientists must work to communicate their own research and do so in as clear and unbiased a manner as possible.
This task is difficult due primarily to two major hurdles in communication between the scientists performing the research and the members of the public whom this research will affect. The first hurdle encompasses the concepts in rhetoric termed ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos refers to establishing credibility for a particular argument, while pathos and logos refer to appeals to emotion and logic, respectively, to persuade an audience to side with that argument. Essentially, newscasters and other professional media members are skilled at using these three aspects of rhetoric to establish reliability, resulting in the public accepting media outlets as sources of trustworthy information. Scientists are generally not as skilled in rhetoric as their media counterparts trained in communication. Misinformation can easily arise when unethical news sources abuse this line of trust and spread inaccurate information. It is up to scientists to combat this spread with verifiable data.
The second hurdle scientists face communicating their expertise to the public involves public perception of scientific discovery. Scientists are trained to formulate hypotheses and test them via the scientific method. Hypotheses are always in flux and constantly modified as more information is discovered. In my opinion, laypersons generally think of science in terms of hard facts. They are more likely to view revisions to current bodies of knowledge as scientific failures rather than reasons to trust in science. When this view of science is combined with media-induced panic—such as with the outbreak of COVID-19—the result is a public demand for immediate answers and solutions that are not yet available. This is further compounded by scientific hypotheses and speculations being taken as fact by the public rather than the fluctuating work-in-progress scientific discovery is. When the public eventually loses trust in the developing hypotheses from scientists working diligently to obtain answers, they turn to other non-evidence-based sources for information, generating even further panic. While the issue of scientific communication and misinformation in the media will no doubt be pervasive for quite some time, it is by no means an unsolvable problem. Transparency and improved communication skills among scientists are the best tools by which scientists and researchers can combat the issue. Together, these tools help to clearly communicate to the public what the facts are and, more importantly, how researchers found the information and why they can’t yet give an answer to every question. This last point becomes particularly important when discussing hot topics such as the potential COVID-19 vaccine, where frank discussion of the timeline and limitations of research can help immensely in preventing non-scientists from “filling in the blanks” themselves with inaccurate information. Whether their audience is every internet user who comes across a publication or just one family member, it is important for each researcher and scientist to work towards an ideal of clear, unbiased communication of their science for a more informed public and a brighter future for medicine.