SciCommers Weigh in on How to Write about Science in a Pandemic

By the Fancy Comma, LLC Team

By now, we’re about six months into a pandemic that we never anticipated. With that, the world has suddenly shifted to one in which knowing the latest science is important. 

There have been many many problems with science communication in the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, most people — including most journalists — are not scientists.  However, there have also been many opportunities for the public to gain science literacy over the course of the pandemic.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Not sure how to write about science in a pandemic?  Here are a few tips from the science communication — also called SciComm — community.

Listen and Observe — Then Write.

Sheema Ali, Medical Writer and Blogger at The Scienzest, says:

“I think a lot of the time we communicate science, we end up talking ‘at’ people instead of ‘with’ them. So my advice would be to ask, listen, observe, and then respond with relevant, succinct, and actionable information.”

“A lot of the time we communicate science [and] end up talking ‘at’ people instead of ‘with’ them. So my advice would be to ask, listen, observe, and then respond with relevant, succinct, and actionable information.” @TheScienzest

Ali came up with a list of six common misconceptions that she faces when writing about COVID-19 — check them out here.

Remember the Scientific Method.

Thomas Clements, Ph.D., is a Senior Biology Lecturer at Vanderbilt University.  He tweets:

“Scientific thought is not a belief system, it’s a method to approach a particular problem and it evolves over time. The [COVID-19] pandemic is one the first times that the general public is seeing this process evolve first hand.”

“Scientific thought is not a belief system — it’s a method to approach a particular problem and it evolves over time.” @Science_Baller

Clements also discusses the importance of the scientific method in the era of COVID-19 over at his blog.

Fact-Check.

Marina Tulin is a postdoc at Erasmus University in the Netherlands who works on the TRESCA project, which stands for Trustworthy, Reliable and Engaging Scientific Communication Approaches. She recently tweeted:

“Trends in #scicomm during #Covid19 pandemic are a mixed bag: more misinformation BUT also more fact-checking and larger role of scientific experts in policy-making.”

Scientists can play an important role in combating misinformation in the COVID-19 pandemic. Fact-checking by scientists can help promote scientific truths and help prevent the spread of anti-vax propaganda. An evidence-based approach which focuses on the facts is the most effective strategy for science communication.

Use Illustrations to Boost Understanding.

A picture can say 1,000 words.  Sunnyside Comms founder and public relations pro Nathalie Santa Maria, APR, writes:

“I find it helpful if the info includes some form of visualization of the data. Images are easier to share and it helps me comprehend the info better.”

“I find it helpful if the info includes some form of visualization of the data. Images are easier to share and it helps me comprehend the info better.” @SunnySideNate on #scicomm

Make Sure Your SciComm Has a Human Side.

The Science Communicators of Canada argue that visuals can bring a “human side” to science communication which can make SciComm more effective.  They favor “an empathetic, user-based approach … like comics and visual narratives” that can build trust and combat misinformation.  Read their post on compassionate SciComm in a pandemic here.

Keep It Simple.

In the words of the great Albert Einstein, “Keep things as simple as possible — but not simpler.”  We at Fancy Comma, LLC recently tweeted:

“SciComm tip: Keep it simple. Being able to explain something easily doesn’t mean you or your audience are dumb — it means more people can find complex topics in STEM accessible!”

“Being able to explain something easily [in #scicomm] doesn’t mean you or your audience are dumb — it means more people can find complex topics in #STEM accessible.”

Explaining something simply can be very difficult.  Try to include only the most essential information needed to make your case.  Sometimes, this may be a challenge.

Make SciComm a Priority in COVID-19.

Nidhi Parekh is a science communicator who blogs at The Shared Microscope and can also be found on Instagram.  Regarding the importance of SciComm, she writes,

“When communicated effectively, science can thrive – allowing worldwide collaboration for the eradication of preventable diseases.”

“When communicated effectively, science can thrive – allowing worldwide collaboration for the eradication of preventable diseases.” @TheSharedScope on #scicomm

The best science is useless without effective communication.  For example, if people cannot get timely information on the merits of a COVID-19 vaccine, this could derail all the progress made towards putting the pandemic in the past.  Nidhi Parekh has written about the dangers of the anti-vax rhetoric, and the need for improved science communication in the COVID-19 pandemic, on her blog.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

In a Pandemic, Good Science Communication is Essential

In a pandemic, science communication is paramount.  We hope that the advice above can help you navigate the SciComm environment in the era of COVID-19.  Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments below regarding best science communication practices in COVID-19.  You can also find us on Twitter @FancyComma.

4 thoughts on “SciCommers Weigh in on How to Write about Science in a Pandemic

  1. have read the details.. i think it’s pretty sane and comprehensive information/suggestions.. m that should help anyone with an interest in medical writing… aspirants will do well to keep these points at the forefront

    dr s a tahir
    consultant radiologist

    Liked by 2 people

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