How to Talk About the Coronavirus

Four ways to help those around you be better informed about the pandemic

Cells in the shape of speech bubbles
The Atlantic

As the coronavirus pandemic explodes, so does our exposure to a virulent combination of misinformation, disinformation, and hackneyed amateur analysis. We are all trying to make sense of what this means and what to do.

I’ve spent 15 years as a science communicator—digging deep into complicated research on topics outside my own expertise, figuring out what we know, and then deciding what needs to be shared and how to do that effectively. Sometimes, that has led to anxiety, nightmares, and fights about science with people I love. Perhaps those experiences sound familiar.

We are all science communicators now: COVID-19 has conscripted us. The way we seek out and share information can either make things better or make them worse. Here’s some of what I’ve learned along the way about how to communicate science effectively.

First, start where you are. You are already an influential source of information for the people closest to you. Even if they vehemently disagree with you, your family and friends likely pay more attention to you, and think more highly of you, than do people whom you’ve never met.

Researchers who study the flow of information through networks talk about strong and weak social ties—those formed by close-knit networks with frequent interactions, and those built of more distant and less frequent interactions. Both are crucially important, and weak ties can be surprisingly important. Being an effective science communicator requires understanding your identity as a messenger. You are most effective when culture, context, and identity align. I’ll never forget first hearing about the idea of being a “nerd node of trust”—the person friends and family turn to for technical expertise. It’s a powerful antidote to fruitless agonizing over audience reach. You already have reach. Focus your energy on your own close community first.

Second, pick your battles. On Thursday, I watched Steph Curry’s Instagram Live chat with Anthony Fauci. “Information, as we all know, is power,” Curry told his viewers. Yes, and here’s the catch: Just throwing information at people is also a powerful way of frustrating and alienating them.

People are cognitive misers. We all tend not to expend mental energy when possible; we are subject to profound cognitive biases; and we rely on heuristics to help us make decisions quickly. By offering us patterns in chaos and meaning in randomness, biases and heuristics reduce the complexity of our judgments. And they almost always do so in line with our existing beliefs, values, and identities, and without our conscious awareness. Humans will go to tremendous lengths to preserve our dignity and social status.

Science communication becomes especially challenging when it deals with politically polarized topics. Criticism of a disastrous press conference, for example, can feel like an attack on an elected official, and therefore on anyone who voted for them. Identity threats trigger identity-protective behaviors such as motivated reasoning. If you want to argue politics, argue politics! This is never as important as when the stakes are so high. But don’t conflate that with science communication.

Identify and affirm your shared values and identities first, and only then ask your audience to submit to the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance. Notice how this is so much easier within your own community. I may hate the politician my dad once voted for, but I love my dad, and he loves me. We can build on that.

Third, avoid unforced errors. I’ve learned that many of my instinctive responses are counterproductive. When I encounter a false rumor, I want to correct it; when I see people sharing a dangerous piece of advice, I want to condemn it. But repeating misinformation inadvertently reinforces it. Dangerous ideas are contagious: Think of this as information hygiene to limit their viral spread. In one of the most highly cited peer-reviewed papers on correcting misinformation, scientists recommend including pre-exposure warnings, fostering healthy skepticism, and providing simple, repeated rebuttals that focus on the correct information.

Try saying, for example, “I’m worried that you might have been hearing reports about medicines and the coronavirus. Some of the information out there is very wrong.” That way, you’ll open the door for a conversation about a variety of topics that have been in the news lately, and give yourself space to figure out what the first priorities for the conversation should be. I won’t know where my science communication can do the most good if I don’t know what my audience is focused on or worried about. Besides, starting a conversation from a place of humility and genuine curiosity is always healthy and helpful behavior.

Fourth, be as honest and transparent as possible. We can’t read every paper, track every development, perform our own analyses, or represent the complete body of knowledge we now have about COVID-19. Take comfort in the complexity of the research. Seek out and respect the expertise of those with domain-specific knowledge. Revise your positions as new information accumulates. Accept and acknowledge the limits of your knowledge, even as you work to expand it. Allow yourself to step away when it becomes too much, so that you can step back in when you are needed most.

These steps will help you improve, and check the quality of, your own knowledge, as well as enhance your credibility when you try to communicate it. Inviting your audiences to explore a topic with you and equipping them with the tools to interrogate the process respect their agency and autonomy. Science communication should be about service, not self-importance.

I’ve been grappling with each of these challenges as I write. There is still a massive disconnect between theory and practice in science. I caught myself downloading dozens of papers to get a single sentence right. I questioned whether I should link directly to those academic contributions behind their paywalls or to the popular journalism interpreting their results. I questioned whether I am the right person to write this, whether anyone would read it, and if it would genuinely matter that you are.

But it has never been so important to get people to pay attention to hard truths, and perhaps it has never has been as difficult to do that as it is right now. The key is to confront the most brutal facts of reality unflinchingly, while maintaining an unwavering hope for the future. This is called the Stockdale paradox, after Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who survived years of torture as a prisoner of war. In a conversation with Jim Collins, Stockdale later attributed his survival to the fact that he “never lost faith in the end of the story,” unlike those “who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

We will not be out of this pandemic by Easter either. But I have not lost faith in the end of the story, and you can help us get there.