- Tracey Kyles
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Hello! Welcome to my blog. Here, I will generally focus on anything relating to communication research. As someone who studies communication, I figured the best topic I could get into was the emerging problems in communication. Well for my first blog, I would like to talk about scientific communication.
To start off briefly, I would like to dive into the primary issue we’ve likely consistently observed for the past couple of years. It’s been pretty obvious to anyone that communication during COVID-19 has been a nightmare. With extreme groups spreading misinformation and people going down rabbit holes, misinformation is spreading at an alarming rate. I believe the first solution to solving this would be making communication simpler for everyone and raising the standards for how media filters their content.
But how did we get to this point? What is making everything so hard to decipher? First, we should start by talking about the general population’s understanding of science. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2018 92.95% of Americans between the ages of 25 to 30 have a high school diploma (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). That same number for bachelor’s degrees was 36.98% and 9.01% for graduate students. What that means is that most people aren’t going to be exposed to a lot of academic writing or scientific research. And so most of the general public are not immersed in an environment that continuously encourages scientific literacy. To put it simply, there’s an unfamiliarity with the complexity of the reasoning. You can ask a simple question to a medical researcher and you’ll get a complicated answer that doesn’t sound like a simple yes or no, and that can confuse a lot of people. But that’s the problem, sometimes there are complexities found in research to the simple answer. There’s an entire process to finding those answers that we don’t get to see before we see the general news article simplifying a study.
This is something that’s already being acknowledged within the scientific community. Experts in communication have discussed how to close the mental gap between the general public and the scientific community. Some have suggested visual tools (Kearns & Kearns, 2020), others have considered revamping public school education (Bromme & Goldman, 2014). But even if that were to change right now, we also need to address the media.
Journalism is the only other public information medium, but it is undeniable they’ve made mistakes along the way when it came to informing the general public. I can even talk about mistakes I’ve witnessed this year alone. For example, let’s talk about a CBS clip from CBS This Morning with Gayle King (CBS This Morning, 2021). She reported on a study that said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine wasn’t as effective as previously thought. She had a guest speaker, Dr. David Agus, who stated that it, “should not have gotten media attention.” The study paid attention to antibodies, not T-cells, which he stated was a better indicator to judge the effectiveness of the vaccine. Furthermore, it wasn’t even a peer-reviewed study, so there wasn’t a consensus established to say the results were conclusive. This prompted Gayle to even ask, “Why is this getting headlines? Because there are already so many people who were freaked out to begin with to get the vaccine in any form…” I had to ask the same thing. Why was this being reported on?! It’s not even ready to go into a peer-reviewed journal, much less make the news. And now, it’s just one more piece of information out there to confuse people.
And there’s more like this. I also don’t like how the News brings up scary numbers without considering the percentages. Let’s take, for example, an ABC News report on the rising cases of myocarditis in 14 teenagers around June (ABC News Network, 2021). While they did state they were mild cases and say the numbers weren’t severely high, they still failed to give perspective by providing percentages or ratios. At the time, I went out of my own way to find out how many teens in total have received the vaccine, which was 2.3 million teenagers around the time of the report. That means that was 14 cases of myocarditis out of 2.3 million, which brings you to less than 0.001%. This same thing happened when Johnson & Johnson had to recall their vaccine due to blood clots (Katella, 2021). According to reports in April, 6.8 million Americans were administered the Johnson & Johnson shot. Amongst those 6.8 million, 6 people suffered blood clots. Once more, taking these numbers into percentages, that is still less than 0.001%
But you may also be thinking, “A percentage of people getting affected is still bad nonetheless!” Well, yes. I do still feel bad for those who had to suffer myocarditis or blood clots. However, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that these are the same risks we’ve had with medicine and vaccines for many years. The truth is, vaccines, like all medications, carry some sort of risk (Goodman, 2020). It’s chemicals being introduced to your body. Even aspirin has side effects. Thankfully, these things are very rare, and 0.001% of the population is a pretty small number. The reason it’s like this is because we still have complicated monitoring protocols with medicine (Shimabukuro et al., 2015). Johnson & Johnson did the right thing by recalling and investigating the cases, as all pharmaceuticals should. And even during this time of COVID, they still have protocols in effect.
So, with that being said, I say we should start making efforts to simplify our communication to the general public. I would like to see more being done in research on how to structure that communication. Furthermore, I think the media should be more careful about how they report statistics. Don’t report on something that hasn’t even been confirmed by the scientific community yet. If we make an effort to make things clear and concise, then we can make the first step to help stop the spread of misinformation.
Thank you for reading.
U.S. Census Bureau (2018). Educational Attainment in the United States: 2018. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2018/demo/education-attainment/cps-detailed-tables.html.
Sinatra, G. M., Kienhues, D., & Hofer, B. K. (2014). Addressing challenges to public understanding of science: Epistemic cognition, motivated reasoning, and conceptual change. Educational Psychologist, 49(2), 123-138.
Bromme, R., & Goldman, S. R. (2014). The public’s bounded understanding of science. Educational Psychologist, 49(2), 59-69.
Kearns, C., & Kearns, N. (2020). The role of comics in public health communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of visual communication in medicine, 43(3), 139-149.
CBS This Morning. (2021). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJ98WUZ9QeA.
ABC News Network. (2021). ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/GMA3/video/cdc-investigating-heart-inflammation-post-covid-19-vaccine-77873194.
Katella, K. (2021, August 4). The Johnson & Johnson vaccine and Blood Clots: What you need to know. Yale Medicine. https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/coronavirus-vaccine-blood-clots.
Goodman, S. (2020, September 12). Immunizations and vaccines: Benefits, risks, effectiveness. WebMD.
Shimabukuro, T. T., Nguyen, M., Martin, D., & DeStefano, F. (2015). Safety monitoring in the vaccine adverse event reporting system (VAERS). Vaccine, 33(36), 4398-4405.