‘Science of communication’: UCSD experts say clarity and honesty are keys to building trust in science

Clockwise from left, UC San Diego's Kim Rubinstein, Sherry Seethaler and Steve Hedrick (and Kim Prather, not shown).
Clockwise from left, UC San Diego’s Kim Rubinstein, Sherry Seethaler and Steve Hedrick speak about the importance of trust in science. Professor Kimberly Prather also was in the discussion but is not pictured.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Trust in science and how scientists can help preserve it through communication was among the topics of an Oct. 22 webinar focusing on issues surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The event featured a panel of experts presented by UC San Diego’s division of biological sciences and research communications program.

Difficulty in trust stems from “how we communicate about different issues,” said Sherry Seethaler, director of education initiatives for UCSD’s division of physical sciences and co-leader of the research communications program. “As scientists, as communicators, we have a job to do to make sure the information we’re giving is comprehensible and that audiences can use it to make decisions.”

Kimberly Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said that “as a scientist who communicates to the public, I can understand the confusion.”

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, she said, “we were told transmission occurs mainly through these large droplets” from people coughing and sneezing, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focusing on distance between people and surface sanitization.

She showed a March 28 tweet from the World Health Organization that read “#COVID-19 is NOT airborne.”

“I’ve spent the last six months trying to undo this and get us to a better place where we can protect ourselves,” Prather said.

Aerosol scientists, Prather said, understand that transmission happens through “speaking, singing or talking loudly,” which produces thousands of aerosol particles, similar to cigarette smoke.

“One of the big disconnects between what people in the medical field thought was happening and what’s really happening has to do with the distinction in terminology [between] aerosol vs. droplet,” she said.

“The mask is your first line of defense,” Kimberly Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said during an Oct. 5 news conference about the need for clearer public health guidelines to combat the coronavirus.

Aerosols are being spread mostly by people who are asymptomatic, Prather said. “Ten to 20 percent of people who are walking around — they’re not coughing or sneezing, they have no idea they’re sick — are leading to 80 to 90 percent of the infections. That is how this virus has made its way around the world.”

Prather said she has worked to share information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, participating in hundreds of interviews and panels and writing letters and papers with colleagues.

“If we don’t tell the public the truth of what is really happening, then we can’t protect the public appropriately,” she said.

Seethaler said “science certainly changes, and that’s acceptable, but when we think that there might be uncertainty ahead, we should be really honest and transparent about that.”

Communication about uncertainty should include “what is the source of the uncertainty, how big is the uncertainty, and is it resolvable,” she said.

“Trust is built gradually … but is destroyed often dramatically,” Seethaler said. “Solutions are [a] matter of collaborative design.”

Kim Rubinstein, a professor in the UCSD department of theater and dance and co-leader of the research communications program, also called for scientists to communicate “with a specific focus on solutions.”

“Clear, honest communication … is nourishment for listeners” that helps them “thrive in this chaotic world,” she said.

Direct information is especially important now, Rubinstein said, as “we are not able to connect person to person. We really need to reach through this screen to make a lasting impression on the listener.”

She said scientists, in explaining their research, need to address listeners’ “fear and pain” and “find and express common ground.”

“My hope for the future is that we merge the art and science of communication and of dreaming of ways that we can change the world,” Rubinstein said.

Steve Hedrick, a UCSD professor of molecular biology, spoke on the imperative to vaccinate.

He shared a slide illustrating how “herd immunity” might grow after a decades-long coronavirus pandemic in which most people become infected and many gain immunity, thereby decreasing the threat of the virus.

“Rather than waiting for ... this [virus] to decrease, we need … an effective vaccine,” he said. “Our modern, interconnected, densely populated world is only possible because of large-scale vaccine programs.”

A graphic illustrates how "herd immunity" is achieved after a decades-long pandemic.

“The difficulty is, as we approach herd immunity in a region, everyone is protected unless there’s a tendency to feel that vaccination is unnecessary,” Hedrick said. “We remain protected only if the vast majority of the population realizes the importance of community participation in our common immunity to disease.”

More than 100 companies, research institutions and governments around the world are working on coronavirus vaccines. None has received full regulatory clearance yet, but four candidates have entered late-stage clinical trials in the United States.

A vaccine in development undergoes strict protocols to ensure safety before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will license it, Hedrick said. “Most of the potential for clinical adverse effects [of a vaccine] are found before it gets to general public vaccination.”

The CDC and FDA maintain a nationwide monitoring system called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, he said, “which allows anyone to report an adverse reaction.”

Poll results released Oct. 21 by the Public Policy Institute of California show that a majority of those surveyed, 57 percent, said they would definitely or probably get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available today.

That opinion, however, was shared by only 29 percent of Black respondents — far below the 70 percent of Asian American respondents, 62 percent of White people and 54 percent of Latinos.

The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.