The world has always needed effective science communication — and that’s especially true now, as journalists try to provide accurate reports on a pandemic that we’re still trying to understand.

Despite the best efforts of public health officials around the globe, a sizeable amount of the population isn’t taking the pandemic seriously, but a new study offers clues on how officials may be able to communicate COVID-19 risks more effectively.

In the paper, researchers from the Social Cognition Center Cologne conducted three experiments, each involving more than 500 adults who live in the U.S. 

They found that many of the participants assumed COVID-19 cases grew linearly with time, rather than exponentially, causing them to underestimate the infection rate.

After working with participants to understand exponential growth, authors Dr. Joris Lammers, Jan Crusius, and Anne Gast noted a “significant” increase in correct perceptions of COVID-19 spread and more support for social distancing measures.

“Together, these results show the importance of statistical literacy to recruit support for fighting pandemics such as the coronavirus,” Dr. Lammers said in a statement.

“Our results stand in contrast to earlier literature showing that the exponential growth bias is difficult to overcome.”



But despite anyone’s best efforts, there will always be a segment of the population who ignores evacuation orders during a natural disaster, shuns the flu vaccine, and laughs in the face of a global pandemic.

Experts believe there could be a few forms of bias at play.

In a 2015 study on public perception and behaviour during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic in Beijing, researchers Jianhua Xu and Zongchao Peng found individuals make decisions based on their perceived risk. For some, that process may be clouded by optimistic bias, in which people view themselves as being at less risk than outside members of the community, not unlike the thought process demonstrated by participants in Lammers et. al paper above.

The 2015 study found the perceived risk of infection increased as the emergency progressed and as new cases of H1N1 climbed — but that infers that public awareness also increased.

Literacy can play a role in whether or not people listen to warnings, which is why governments need to craft clear, informative, and authoritative messaging during an emergency.

Not taking a clear stance, initially downplaying risks, or peppering warnings with highly-technical jargon can dilute the message and make audiences tune out.

When a pandemic looms, public literacy could be an important way to keep a community safe. A 2019 study on willingness to self-isolate during a pandemic found that people are more likely to heed warnings if they are informed about the risks.

“Extensive publicity in various forms is necessary to help residents better understand the pandemic and raise awareness about early treatment when facing a pandemic risk,” reads an excerpt from the paper.

“Greater understanding of pandemic influenza significantly increases compliance with public health containment measures.”


But for some people, literacy won’t help. In some cases, people have to see it to believe it. If it isn’t happening in their city, or to someone they know, the disease remains invisible.

One famous example of this is called the ‘Rock Hudson’ effect.

Hudson, an American film icon, cast a global spotlight on AIDS when he announced he was suffering from it on July 25, 1985.

Until then, many Americans considered AIDS to be a ‘silent’ epidemic, even though it had infected more than 16,000 Americans by the time Hudson’s diagnoses became known.

But Hudson’s death made the disease seem real to millions and sparked immediate shifts in the way the public and government perceived the threat — kickstarting fundraising initiatives and awareness campaigns that simply didn’t exist prior.

Hudson died on October 2, 1985. On that same day, U.S. Congress allocated nearly $190 million for AIDS research, representing an increase of $70 million over the original request.

“His illness and death have moved the fight against AIDS ahead more in three months than anything in the past three years,” Chairman of California’s AIDS Advisory Board Committee Bruce Decker said of Hudson’s death.


Another problem — and this one may be COVID-19-specific — is age.

Continued messaging that COVID-19 is much more likely to kill people over the age of 80 may be enough to make some healthy individuals venture outside and into crowds, even though they may make others sick.


As a scientist, you can help fight COVID-19 by using your expertise to disseminate accurate and timely information.

Here are some tips on how to do that effectively, courtesy of the ASCB:

Know your audience. How old are they? What is there level of education and knowledge on the subject you are trying to communicate?

Can you explain it to a child? The “explain it to a child” theory, which is the first step in the Feynman Technique, is a tool that can help keep your message simple and direct.

The concept is simple: When a teacher can explain a complex topic to a child in a way that keeps them entertained and engaged, the information is likely appropriate for a broad audience.

This technique can also provide the scientist with a deeper understanding of the material.

Avoid jargon whenever possible. Research suggests that when members of the general public are exposed to scientific jargon they’re more likely to lose interest in a topic, even when definitions are provided.

Researchers also found jargon is more likely to make readers feel like they aren’t good at science and unqualified to discuss science-related topics.

Try to use metaphors and analogies. One way to avoid using jargon is by taking big concepts and explaining them with everyday metaphors and analogies.

Use visuals whenever possible. If you’d like some tips on how to create engaging SciComm graphics, check out this article.