How We Can Improve Trust in Science
The week before my university closed in March, my students and I were discussing the pandemic. One student didn’t think it was very serious, citing that there’s “only” a one percent chance of dying from COVID-19. Another student, a Black male, laughed it off.
“Black people can’t get the coronavirus,” he said. “It’s got something to do with our skin.”
My mouth dropped. “Where did you hear that?”
He pulled up the article on his phone. It was a website that he followed often for his news. He trusted it because it served the needs of his community. I scrolled through the article briefly and found no scientific evidence for the claims.
I refrained from criticizing his beloved source, but I told him to adopt the precautions that the scientific community puts forth.
I later found out that this misinformation had proliferated in the Black community. It wasn’t until some high profile people tested positive for COVID-19 that the Black community learned it wasn’t immune. British actor Idris Elba tried to quash this myth as he contracted the virus in early March. He posted on his Twitter account:
Something that is scaring me, when I read the comments and some of the reactions, my people, Black people, please, please understand that coronavirus is … you can get it.
This misinformation proved to be problematic, considering that Black or African-American adults in the U.S. are 2.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white adults.
A recent survey by Pew Research found that 53 percent of Black adults have a positive view of medical researchers, compared with 68 percent of white adults and 67 percent of Hispanic adults. This mistrust has caused many in the Black community to refuse to participate in research studies, citing the Tuskegee syphilis study as a prime factor.
How can we improve the trust of medical researchers in the Black community, and possibly improve trust in scientific research overall? It’s all about good communication.
Find opinion leaders
With a wealth of scientific research readily available on the internet, individuals can find much of this information on their own. However, that’s not how many people operate. When information comes flying at us from all sides, we adopt the practice of selective exposure, where we refine this onslaught of information to a few outlets.
Consider this — with all the current television offerings on a cable or satellite service, how many channels do you watch? With all the streaming services, do you watch something from every genre? On YouTube, do you search for a variety of channels, or do you allow AI to suggest what you might like?
Let’s go back to my student. He believes that mainstream media sites aren’t very relevant to him, so he attends to sites that cater to his liking. In this sense, the sites that we choose to find our information are considered to be the “opinion leaders” in what is called the two-step flow of communication.
The two-step flow of communication posits that many people aren’t easily influenced by the media. We tend to trust those in our community — those who look and talk like us — much more than the media outlets. This community would also include bloggers and those whom we follow on social media, such as Idris Elba. Today’s “influencers” are opinion leaders.
The opinion leaders tend to be heavy media consumers. Because they understand their role as a leader, they feel obligated to stay up-to-date with information relevant to their “followers.” They become gatekeepers of information, selecting information that is relevant to their followers and leaving out information they don’t deem important.
What’s crucial, though, is for the opinion leaders to understand the information given to them. Perhaps they don’t verify the source of information and instead rely on other opinion leaders. The message, therefore, gets muddled as more noise enters the communication process. This noise can be excessive advertising, excessive distraction, or even misunderstanding of the source due to an overload of information processing.
The more people who come between the originator of the message and the receiver, the more likely the message gets distorted. Our childhood game of telephone is a perfect illustration of this, where we whisper our message to the other. If the original signal from the research community is clear, it might be easily shared by scientific reporters, then influencers, then social media outlets.
Reputable researchers are transparent about their source of funding and their methods. Research that has been reviewed by the scientific community often will disclose any financial conflicts of interest. Researchers clearly specify their procedures and method for conducting the research in almost painful detail. However, it’s there.
If you head to the COVID Tracking project’s About Us page, you’ll notice that it is based on hundreds of volunteers who help collect data and present it on a simple platform. Each page of text gives explanations of how the organization obtained its data, and the site offers several hyperlinks for users to verify the source of information. What is most notable is the lack of ads, which shows that revenue for this site doesn’t depend on clicks. Instead, the site is transparent about its funding, which comes from several nonprofit foundations.
Simplify the message
Conspiracy theorists and pseudo-scientific blogs make more money when they write controversial content because it violates the mainstream’s expectations. They understand rule one of propaganda — simplify the message and repeat it often. However, the scientific community and its opinion leaders can employ “white” propaganda, where the information sources are clear and transparent.
For instance, we might hear messages from others who contradict the scientific community. Social media users aren’t obligated to verify their facts, and misinformation spreads faster than truth. Social media posts with pictures are more easily noticed and shared by social media users. Here’s a graphic from the COVID Tracking project, which shows the several bumps in hospitalizations in the U.S. This graphic is pretty simple and clear.
Many research studies are written in scientific language that is understood by scientific audiences. I myself have sat through research presentations and thought, “What is this guy talking about?” This reinforces the perception of elitism in the scientific community. What if the scientific community made its research a little more understandable to the average reading level and attention span of adults?
Therefore, the originators of these messages need to make them as clear as possible.
Make the message easily accessible
Media reports on research might refer to specific studies, and responsible media outlets will link to the study itself. However, most of the quality research hides behind a hefty paywall, asking for sometimes $80 to read a single research article. This makes it financially inaccessible to many, particularly if they don’t know if that study points specifically to their inquiry.
This verifies the belief that the scientific community is comprised of elites, and information is only available to the privileged. Some researchers will make their studies publicly available and free on sites like Research Gate and Academia.edu, which is a good start.
Nonprofit websites like The Conversation have articles written by university researchers who summarize their research in easy-to-read pieces. The more accessible, available, and transparent the research, the more likely it can be picked up by citizen journalists and bloggers and subsequently shared on social media.
My student, thankfully, found other opinion leaders who conveyed to him more accurate information. In the future, the scientific community needs to seize the media environment before misinformation can infiltrate and take root.
The scientific community can improve trust if the message is clear, concise, accessible, and doesn’t seek profit. It’s important to employ the most efficient medium and message to quickly and effectively communicate information that helps people make informed decisions about their lives and those around them.