Don’t Roll the Dice with Science Communication

by Catriona Nguyen-Robertson MRSV

Do you remember your first interaction with science as a child? Do you remember the brand name of any vaccine you have had in the past?

What do we remember from when we were young?

You probably remember the advertisements you watched on television, even when you were under ten years old. Marketing companies are good at getting us to remember things, but scientists do not always consider it part of their job.

Shane’s cigarette tar extractor. The blackened filter paper after “smoking” the cigarette clearly highlighted the health hazard.

Dr Shane Huntington remembers a scientific experiment he did back in year 7. The year was 1983, and the message was clear: smoking is bad. At the time, he had a part-time job at the local milk bar where he sold cigarettes. The packaging looked great. At school, students received kits from the Cancer Council to “smoke” cigarettes through filter paper with a syringe, and Shane saw how smokers would breathe in all the black tar that was caught by the paper. This simple yet unexpected result left a mark.

Shane advocates for better communication of science. Done well, it can be transformative. Done badly, it can lead to lives being lost.

‘The way we communicate has a real impact on the way science is delivered to our society,’ he says.

Vale L’Aquila

In the town of L’Aquila in central Italy, poor science communication led to the deaths of 29 people. On the 6th of April 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the town. In the weeks preceding, there were several foreshocks and the frogs disappeared. A technician at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, Giampaolo Giulliani, predicted the massive earthquake. But he was silenced.

Giampaolo resorted to driving around a nearby town in a van with a megaphone. Sceptical Italian officials believed that he was sowing unwarranted panic. Perhaps it is fortunate that this particular town did not evacuate – as people would have flocked to the neighbouring L’Aquila, where the devastating quake hit and they would have been in more danger. Seismic events are essentially impossible to accurately predict.

Rubble caused by the L’Aquila earthquake. Photo: Angelo Giordano.

However, the officials were also wrong to communicate that there was no reason to worry. The public were told that the small shocks they were experiencing were releasing stress to reduce the chance of a major earthquake. While this is true, they were not told that 30,000 small shocks would have been needed to avoid the 6.3 magnitude earthquake – they believed there was no reason to think that something larger was coming.

Post-quake, six scientists and a government official were convicted of manslaughter in 2012 for the advice they gave ahead of the devastating event. Their misleading advice was unjustifiably reassuring and led many, including the 309 victims, to underestimate the threat. The scientists were subsequently exonerated on appeal, as the reassurances were considered the exclusive fault of the government official.

Even more recently, 13 parties were put on trial following the Whakaari White Island volcanic eruption in 2019. The eruption occurred when 47 people were on the island, injuring all and killing 22. Scientists were at the frontline of understanding the volcano and producing hazard forecasts, but every step of the process involved uncertainty.

The Story So Far…

No scientist can be certain of the future – only the odds. It is unreasonable to prosecute every scientist when predictions are not 100% correct.

In science, it is not always possible to give absolute answers. Science is constantly evolving, and that is one of its strengths: answers can change as we learn more. Shane believes that it is important to consider the longevity of scientific messages and leave them open to being modified down the track. In academia, reputations and jobs are tied to the ability of a scientist to get things right, but when communicating results to the public, they need to be able to update information without appearing foolish.

It is also important to keep reinforcing messages. Shane was interviewing scientists on his 3RRR radio program, Einstein A Go-Go, around the importance of vaccination 10-12 years ago. At this time, vaccines were routine and normalised – which means we stopped making a public case for them. A gap in communication appeared, and was filled by people who started to question the science (healthy), then spread misinformation (unhealthy).

Public Perceptions of Risk

When the public makes choices based on risk, we need to ensure they are well equipped to make their own decisions. We use education to encourage people to eat 3-4 servings of vegetables per day rather than enforcing it. At other times, safety is ensured with legislated mandates such as wearing seatbelts or banning indoor smoking – because we know that they make us all safer. Yet vaccine mandates have been heavily disputed, even though you might die much faster from being infected by someone than passively breathing in their smoke at a restaurant.

Let’s consider the two early COVID-19 vaccine options in Australia: both had their pros and cons. Both were under more scrutiny than any other medicine before. All medicines (including vaccines) have side effects, but rarely does our society have so many people taking the same one at the same time, with so many people vigilantly concerned.

Media sells fear well. In Norway, there were reports of 23 elderly people in nursing homes passing away after receiving the Pfizer vaccine. The lacking contextual detail was that 400 care home residents die each week across the country regardless. It was a correlation, not causation. Conversely, the AstraZeneca vaccine was associated with blood clots. Shane was concerned at the problematic headlines in newspapers and poor government messaging, just as we were trying to convince the public of the importance of vaccine yet again.

All these numbers are about comparative risk. Of those women taking the contraceptive pill, one in a thousand are at risk of blood clots, compared to three in one hundred thousand with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Yet we never even talk about the risk around the pill as a society.

Visualising Risk

Shane believes in the power of visualisation: of the 100,000 people that fit in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, three might get blood clots and, most likely, be successfully treated. If this was in the USA, 289 of those at the MCG would die of COVID-19, never to return home. Here in Australia, it would be 20. When taken as a proportion of the total population of each country, that is a very large number of deaths from COVID compared to the likely development of blood clots.

Even with these comparisons, once fear has spread, it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. We are now better at detecting and treating adverse side effects. ‘You don’t see the progress in the media – it doesn’t sell as well as the fear,’ says Shane.

Dr Jane Canestra, Dr Shane Huntington, Mike Flattley, Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, Prof. Frances Separovic, and Molly Patton.

To better connect the public with science, scientists need to use simpler descriptions. Analogies are excellent ways of making science memorable. Shane still remembers reading about how mountains and valleys formed as a child; a book compared the planet’s crust to an apple skin wrinkling away from the Earth’s core and while this turned out to be incorrect, pre-dating tectonic plate theory, it was memorable. Narrative is also a powerful tool, as affirmed by several avid science communicators in a panel discussion following Shane’s presentation. Professor Frances Separovic, Dr Jane Canestra, Molly Patton and Shane all communicate science to various audiences, using stories to make people more receptive to facts, figures and science.

Science cannot stand alone. Shane believes that scientists need to work with people who understand society and people who can engage local communities. He also believes that we need more people trained in science – but not necessarily scientists. People who can communicate it to others. Communication is critical. When done poorly, it costs lives.

This article follows a presentation to the Royal Society of Victoria on 24th March titled ‘Earthquakes, Pandemics and the Communication of Science.’ A video of Shane’s presentation is available on the Society’s YouTube channel thanks to the support of the Inspiring Victoria program.