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.