The crisis of the covid-19 pandemic has brought different groups and experts to the table as never experienced before. They were present in the media, participated in discussion rounds, and posted in social networks. Findings and new insights seemed to change daily. During the pandemic, similar to climate issues, certain and uncertain scientific evidence in connection with political decisions became decisive for the population. Struck by the debates on covid-19 evidence, it seems not far to reconsider the role of researchers in the political and national discourse. Thus, there may be lessons to be learned for climate communication even if there are differences in managing covid-19 and the climate crisis.
Science communication has gained increasing attention also in the climate arena. Its audiences are non-experts, decision makers and the wider public; its actors are scientists, public outreach institutions and science journalists. The questions we should ask include : How should policy be informed by researchers, and what characterizes good communication to the population in a crisis? Is a temporally spread crisis (climate) different from a shock (covid) in these regards? Comparison is legitimate because both are global threats, they are complex to handle, and there is a direct and indirect link between climate and health. In urgent situations you need to take a decision even if knowledge is low. This is when you need transparency most: How can we interpret policy measures? What goals do they pursue? What evidence are they based on?
The “what” and “so what” in science communication
Science is complex. As a scientific expert talking to audiences one should be able to report in sufficient detail without being tempted by “false” abbreviations or biased by external interests. Policy advice should be evidence-based wherever possible. Guidance and recommendations, however, can never be deduced from facts alone (“what”). A decision needs to have a goal, values and a weighing of facts (“so what”, as the consequence or interpretation of facts). Opinions about whether scientists should also deliver a valuation or not diverge. The weighting part should be done by policy makers although it is usually left to experts or scientists, two Austrian health experts argued during the pandemic. With respect to climate information and values, new approaches include, for example, to incorporate user values into climate services, that is to consider, as a scientist, which errors the users want to avoid because of the bad consequences for things they value such as e.g. economic growth or health, or to seek informativeness rather than accurateness (guide against missed alarms vs. guide against false alarms).
Help to understand what is known and what is not known
In sharing evidence with an audience, a scientist should ‘inform but not persuade‘. Rather than telling a good-selling story in the race of online techniques, there is good reason to disclose uncertainties and state the quality of the underlying evidence. Science communicators should lead people to a particular decision and help them to understand what is known about a topic so that they can make up their own minds on the basis of that. Still, it’s not that easy. A scientist cannot expect to be trusted on the basis of his/her expertise alone. And even scientists are not unbiased or objective – we all have values and beliefs. But there are a few things scientists can do. A scientist who talks to a non-expert audience, to the media or to politics, should share his/her intentions, the data, and sources. He/she should tell about what is known and what is not known, present potential benefits and possible harms in the same way, and address the concerns of the target audience. Research on climate change and covid-19 shows that if people are informed about possible misunderstandings or doubts, they rather resist being persuaded by misinformation. For instance, New Zealand’s response to the pandemic has been appreciated, while its Ministry of Health did not abstain from officially reporting uncertainties, such as the likelihood of false negative tests; and the population correctly interpreted the information without losing trust.
Discourse, doubt and contradiction are parts of science
During covid-19 “we have seen journalists and politicians trying to group scientists into opposing camps“, says Fiona Fox, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre. She argues that scientists should share their growing understanding with policy makers but resist being put into a “mainstream” and an “opposing” view. Too little is understood right now, she says. Fox finds comparisons with climate deniers divisive. “Unlike with climate change, I don’t see any strong scientific consensus to deny. Nor do I see groups of scientists questioning the deadliness of the virus.” Also the Austrian media sketched, for example, the Great Barrington und the John Snow Declaration as two opposing scientific poles. However, the pictures do not hold, and the overlap is much larger. There are, of course, different positions, as always in science. If media emotionalizes the scientific discourse, the population becomes increasingly uncertain and loses trust in science. Furthermore, people believe that what the government says is consensus. This is not true. One expert is being heard, the other is not.
Scientists should be remembered as being open, respectful and sharing knowledge
When the covid-19 pandemic is over, we will know that at the beginning science was uncertain, complex and incomplete. Scientists should be remembered as those who debate alternative views in an open and respectful way, and who share their growing understanding with policy. There are at least three lessons to be recalled for climate communication: First, a recap that science is subject to discourse, doubt and contradiction. Second, scientists need to clarify and distinguish what is a fact and what is a consequence of that fact based on a political or societal goal. Third, scientists should state what science can claim to date and what is still unknown or uncertain. In addition, when addressing climate risk during covid-19, communicators are advised not to place climate as a rival topic, rather, to highlight the connection between health and climate, and to draw attention to social values that have become important again such as fairness, solidarity, resilience, mutual support, and compassion.