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Talking about Science in a Pandemic: A Golden Opportunity for Science Communication

I’ve always been fascinated by how things work.

Did you watch Mr. Roger’s neighborhood while growing up? I loved the episode showing how crayons are made.

Sometimes the process is messier than the outcome. Take sausage. It’s delicious! But perhaps the process of seeing how sausage is made isn’t for everyone.

What about the process of how science really works in the real world? As we’re seeing in the general public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever evolving recommendations and insights that occur as more data is generated, the response to seeing “how the sausage is made” (how science knowledge is generated) is interpreted in a negative light.

The most notable being the changes regarding mask wearing by the general public. During the initial phases of the pandemic, it was not recommended. Later evidence came to light that mask wearing was an effective way to stave off COVID-19 transmission.

Rather than acknowledging that science knowledge is meant to change with better evidence (explaining why masks were initially not recommended, then later recommended), many seem to view changing recommendations as the result of inept leadership or political hem-hawing.

The pandemic is a fantastic opportunity for scientists, educators, and science lovers to communicate science concepts to the general public. We’re getting a chance to see the “sausage” made in front of us – making it easier to engage and empower the public with how science really works.

Where to start? Well, one thing that I’ve noted from my interactions with students, family, friends, and members of the general public is that improving science literacy is far more complicated than finding better ways to either teach or communicate science content. 

For example, many people feel like they can’t engage with science – they aren’t smart enough, science is boring, science is inaccessible, science is all about memorizing terms. Too often scientists are the “bad guys” in movies whether it’s Dr. Poison in Wonder Woman or Dr. Julius No from the James Bond Franchise. Then of course, there is the eccentric brilliant scientist portrayal, like Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies. In addition, the history of science doesn’t always put scientists in the best light.

When designing outreach activities, it is important to remember that how we talk about science matters. The language we use, the design of experiences can contribute to inequities in STEM if we’re not careful.

For example, sometimes adopting a science identity can be seen as incompatible with other aspects of identity. Masculine terms that are often used to explain science, particularly at the elementary level (like explosions) conflict with gender identities and make young girls feel like they can’t do science and also identify as a girl. In addition, we also see equity issues in that children from higher socioeconomic status tend to do more science activities at home that are more like science learning in a classroom, and so they are more prepared. Contrast this with the self-directed at home science exploration done by students of lower socioeconomic status, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that these students fall behind their peers.

What we talk about is also as important as how we talk about. It is of paramount importance to consider the messages that we send, either intentionally or unintentionally. Are we perpetuating the idea, for example, that science is all about fact-finding and that once we know something, we know it forever? Or that science is only done by old white men in lab coats?

However, when we talk about science, are we only “preaching to the choir”– are the listeners the ones who are already amped about science? It is possible that the people who attend community science festivals or science museums are already excited about science. We need to be thoughtful not only about our messaging, but about how we can work to reach those who feel like they can’t engage with science. We need to devise outreach that is effective for helping individuals to overcome misconceptions about how science works in the real world, and we need to think of new and unique venues for engaging the public with science.

The bedrock of my recent book, Biology Everywhere: How the science of life matters to everyday life, is that when science concepts are presented in the context of our daily experiences and as they relate to other disciplines, the content becomes relatable, less abstract, and overall more accessible. I propose we can reach beyond the choir when we approach science content in connection with other disciplines and as relevant to our daily lives. For example, understanding the role of art to the process of science exemplifies both how science works in the real world, and serves as an accessible gateway into learning science.

Another method is through storytelling. Using stories from the history of science to illustrate how science really works in the real world. I always like to talk with my students about Rosalind Franklin’s story as an exemplar of how cultural attitudes towards women in the mid-20th century influenced the process of science.

Or how the rejection of the geocentric model of the universe (that the sun and planets all revolve around Earth) for the heliocentric model (that Earth and planets revolve around the sun) when new evidence came to along concurrent with the discovery of the telescope exemplifies how science knowledge changes over time. This also demonstrates how different groups of people can look at the same evidence but draw vastly different interpretations – another example of how science doesn’t look like we’d expect it to based on the typical textbook definition. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a golden opportunity to help the general public understand how science really works. We’re getting to see “how the sausage is made” every day now.  Right now, we’re seeing many illustrations of how science really works on a daily basis. We see scientists disagreeing with one another and changing recommendations in light of new evidence. The world is watching the progress of COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. It’s a great time to step in and talk about randomized control clinical trials, what “pre-prints” of findings are and how it fits into the whole peer-review process. And of course, what peer review is and why it’s important before making decisions.

I’ll close with a challenge to you. As your go about your day, can you find something going on in the real-world today that could be an opportunity for science communication? Can you find an example of how the scientific sausage is being made? How could you present it and what other messages will be translated alongside? How will you design it so that you aren’t preaching to the choir? Have fun and take a chance at doing something creative! I’d love to hear about it – you can find me on Twitter (@Melanie_Peffer), Facebook, and Instagram (@Biologyeverywherebook)

Featured image by mattdoucette CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

About the Author
  • Melanie Peffer 0000-0002-6145-5186

    Dr. Melanie Peffer has a BS and PhD in molecular biology from the University of Pittsburgh and completed a postdoctoral appointment in learning sciences from Georgia State University. She combines her expertise in molecular biology and the learning sciences to study how people learn, understand, and engage with biology content. She recently published Biology Everywhere: How the science of life matters to everyday life. For more information see

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