05 April 2020

Notes from a pandemic: Not a time to jump into science communication

I’m seeing a few people bemoaning the lack of science outreach from professional scientists during this COVIC-19 pandemic. Efra Rivera-Serrano wrote:

Still amazes me that some principal investigators (PIs) and leaders can write whole pages on their grants proposing “outreach activities” but haven’t moved a finger to educate the public when it is mostly needed.

Jen Heemstra chimed in:

Science faculty, part of our job is teaching science. What better time than now to share our science knowledge with everyone? Even better, support students and postdocs who want to learn and participate in #SciComm!

I love me some science communication, but I worry. Something we have seen repeatedly during this pandemic is that very smart people, but who are not experts or have any practical experience, in epidemiology, public health, or modelling, think they have something worthwhile to contribute. And they make some model or prediction or say something else that is badly flawed.

As a personal example, I was in a meeting Friday where one of my colleagues opined that COVID-19 probably wouldn’t too bad in South Texas because of our geographic isolation. That wasn’t a crazy thing to say, but it was said, perhaps, from a limited point of view. An article the next day indicated that was not a good prediction. Culture matters.

(Local health authorities) have begun to notice something else particular to South Texas: strong family ties are exacerbating the virus’ spread.

“We have large households and these large households, they like to visit with other members of their family,” (Dr. Emily Prot, regional medical director of the Texas Department of State Health Services’ Region 11) said.

That needs to stop, she explained.

“We need to really avoid that and stay within one single household. So, no visiting tias, tios. No visiting the mother-in-law. That has to stop. We’re seeing too much spread right now within those family groups,” Prot said.

Prot hammered home the point, adding, “Those interactions are leading to more spread and we’re seeing that at a regional level.”

The Valley as a whole is at higher risk for seeing patients needing acute critical care, or who experience serious complications from the virus, Prot said.

“Well, we have more rates of diabetes in our region, and most of them (deaths caused by COVID-19) are due to older age, but we also had in Laredo, one of the deaths was in his 40s,” she said.

We need people with relevant expertise to provide that information. But I am deeply worried about people deciding, “I need to do science communication!” when do not have the relevant expertise, are unpracticed or untrained in communication (or both).

I would like all scientists, especially science communication novices, if their planned science communication in the time of COVID-19 passes the Craig Ferguson test for science communication.

Does this need to be said?  Does this need to be said by me?  Does this need to be said by me now?

The three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything:
Does this need to be said?
Does this need to be said by me?
Does this need to be said by me now?
Three fuckin’ marriages it took me to learn that.

(From Does This Need to Be Said? Epix, 2011)

Or, as I put it when I was curating the @IAmSciComm account, “When it's not your area of expertise, shut the hell up.”

External links

DSHS: Majority of RGV cases are young people

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