A Belgian virologist experienced a wave of criticism when she published her Covid-19 modelling results. Her response shows how engaging in a dialogue can be an effective strategy when dealing with a critical or hostile public.
The Covid-19 crisis has put scientists under constant scrutiny and pressure. This was the clear message that came out of our QUEST’s focus group meetings with scientists with expertise in climate change, artificial intelligence, and virology/epidemiology.
During a recent meeting the participants highlighted in particular the issue of how to communicate uncertainties. In addition, the scientists emphasized the difficulties of conveying messages without triggering flames of hostility in the public when an emergency arises.
“The public expected from science and medicine absolute truths,” said a virologist about the public’s presumptions in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. “They expect us to tell them what they can do. Can we go out? Is this dangerous? How many infections are there?”
“But what we think or know today can be different tomorrow. That’s what we as scientists live with every day, and we can live with it, but the public cannot understand that. It is very frustrating.”
Sometimes the public reacts to scientific complexities with outright hostility. One recent example of this was in Germany, where a leading virologist came under heavy attack and even received death threats during the Covid crisis.
When feeling under threat, the public can specifically have difficulties to relate to and accept uncertainties. In an emergency we seek clear and straightforward directions and answers. But science cannot always offer these, despite providing the best knowledge possible.
Indeed, we can all accept uncertainties when it comes to defining when dinosaurs went extinct. But it is more difficult to accept uncertainties about when a lockdown should be imposed, and for how long it should remain in place.
When presenting their results or views on such matters, scientists expose themselves to criticism or even attacks. This is what happened to Anne-Mieke Vandamme from KU Leuven university when she posted a blog post on modelling strategies to protect people aged 65+. Her model showed how a prolonged lockdown for 65+ would have resulted in a lower number of deaths.
“The media took my results and presented them as if a scientist was suggesting keeping older people longer in lockdown,” she said. “I got loads of email from the elderly who were really upset with me. Many were insulting me.”
Under attack, scientists might react by defending their position with available arguments. Some might try and open a debate, attempting to win the argument. Yet, Vandamme opted for an open and ultimately constructive strategy when facing a hostile audience.
“I took the time to reach out to each of these people individually. It took me two full days just to answer them. I used the same text for each email, explaining that I was misframed in the media and that I would like to get their feedback.”
“Now, as a result of that, it happens that I have a fan club of 65+ people because they were so happy that I wanted to hear their feedback. In the end it turned out to be a positive experience. They are still contacting me.”
Vandamme’s case is an example of an effective use of QUEST’s Quality Indicators, in particular of the indicator “Connecting with the society”. It shows how openness and listening to the public’s concerns may help turn controversy into a positive engagement and discussion with the public.
“Now they contact me when they need to know something,” Vandamme said. “Engagement takes time, but I like it.” Her experience is yet another example of why the benefits that come out of investing time in communication cannot be overemphasised.