Information regarding COVID-19 is plastered across social media, news outlets, television, and the radio, giving people a real fatigue in terms of reading about the pandemic. Conversations these days all inevitably touch on COVID-19 in some regard, which can often be informative, yet stressful.
It’s exhausting, and fatigue-inducing. That said, we are living in a time with the potential to set new precedents for the world. Namely, important precedents for the relationship that the public has with scientific information.
In early October, news emerged in Ireland that the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) had recommended that the country move to the most severe of COVID-19 restrictions, Level 5. To the public, the government expressed concern and surprise at this recommendation, claiming that NPHET had not provided the Dáil with this update before the news broke. The NPHET for COVID-19 consists of representatives from the Department of Health, the Health Service Executive, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, the Health information and Quality Authority and the Health Products Regulatory Authority.
In short, the team is made up of experts, scientists, and healthcare officials. These are the people with the most acute understanding of the effects that a COVID-19 outbreak could have on the healthcare infrastructure in Ireland, and a simultaneous understanding of what must be done to contain and beat the virus definitively. Somehow, amidst this leak, the government managed to paint them in a significantly negative light despite all the experience and knowledge they bring to the table. There are obvious reasons for this; politicians don’t want to be the ones responsible for their constituents’ unemployment, as an example. They don’t want to be the fall guys for an economic recession or depression. But the risk that this poses to the public’s reliance and trust in science is also dangerous.
Our lives are governed by science, so it seems reasonable that science should be communicated effectively and as honestly as possible. But the public has a part to play too; there should be a primary understanding of the scientific method that research is based on. This is especially the case when a new virus arrives on the scene and the public can watch scientists develop their understanding of it.
Scientists were doubted near the beginning of the pandemic because their research was continuously being updated. “You told us one thing last week, and have changed your mind this week, why should we trust you scientists”, was a common outburst highlighted amongst the public. But this process, at its very core, is scientific research. Scientists ask questions, predict answers to those questions; sometimes the predictions are wrong and sometimes they are slightly right. But the scientific method works, and much like the way in which we should all understand taxes, it is also worth understanding the scientific method.
What’s more, it falls to our leaders to enforce the importance of this understanding. In a recent poll undertaken by The Economist, they asked scientists in various nations whether they felt as though their policy makers were listening to them and heeding their advice. Not surprisingly, at the top of the list for an effective relationship between scientists and policy makers was New Zealand. The USA found itself to have the worst relationship according to American scientists. This is not to imply causation, but merely highlight the correlation that exists between having collaboration between scientists and politicians, and the success with which the pandemic has been handled.
Scientists must assume some responsibility as well. While science can be difficult to fully grasp, it is not completely unaccessible. As the old saying goes, one can only consider themselves an expert on a topic if they can explain it properly to a 5-year-old. That is not the way most scientific communication operates today, and that is a significant barrier in the way of giving thorough recommendations to politicians and ensuring that the public is on the side of science. Scientific recommendations are one piece of a far more intricate system that facilitates the functionality of society. It is not the only part and cannot purport to be so. But it is an important part that must be given its due respect especially when considering disasters like climate change and a global pandemic.
The solutions to both problems lie in various scientific disciplines. Because of this, scientists and politicians must work together to address these problems, not dismiss one another whenever it suits. New and functional relationships must be developed between these two groups so that the public has direction, and faith in both.
Vanesa Gomes – Science Correspondent