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How do we talk about science and uncertainty?

This is the transcript of the first episode of our rerun four-part podcast series 'Unlocking Science', where we discuss everything from social media and trust to identity and knowledge, seeking to discover how we can unlock science for everyone.

In this episode we explore how uncertainties play a role in the process of scientific discovery and why this is such a challenge for the way we need to talk about science.

Our host Nick Ishmael-Perkins will speak to Courtney Radsch, a journalist, author and advocate for freedom of expression. She focuses on the intersection of media technology and human rights, frequently in the media to discuss issues around press freedom and censorship on subjects from COVID-19 to the Arab Spring. And they will be joined by Felix Bast, an Associate Professor based at Central University of Punjab, who works with the Ministry of Education, and was part of the task force on COVID-19 In India. He’s a science communicator known in India for his writing outreach talks and YouTube videos encouraging critical thinking.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 0:00
Welcome to Unlocking Science where we explore how to talk about science and particularly science and trusts. Through these conversations, we will see how social media, cultural traditions, the way we vote, and our very identities influence how we view science and the trust we place in it. This four-part series is brought to you by the International Science Council. I’m your host, Nick Ishmael-Perkins, a journalist and researcher in the field of communication.

So, how do we talk about trust COVID-19 has been a bit of a wake up call for some of us, including scientists, more than ever proliferation of information and debate is challenging traditional sources of truth, resulting in different interpretations, actions and beliefs forming around issues that science can address. Rather, these issues are about managing our health, our environment, or the way we consume. The stakes are high. So we need to get serious about understanding how people are making meaning of scientific information and figure out how to engage all communities effectively.

In this episode, we explore how uncertainty plays a role in the process of scientific discovery, and why this is such a challenge for the way we need to talk about science. Welcome to Unlocking Science.

Joining us across several time zones are two guests who work tirelessly in the field of science, communication and research. Our first guest is Dr. Courtney Radsch, a Washington DC based American journalist, author and advocate for freedom of expression. She focuses on the intersection of media technology and human rights, frequently in the media to discuss issues around press freedom and censorship on subjects from COVID-19 to the Arab Spring. Every time I speak to her she is ever so slightly changed my view of the world like a good play. Welcome, Courtney.

Courtney Radsch 1:53
Thanks so much, Nick.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 1:54
And Dr. Felix Bast, an associate professor based at Central University of Punjab, working with the Ministry of Education, and part of the task force on COVID-19 In India, he’s a science communicator known in India for his writing outreach talks and YouTube videos encouraging critical thinking. I don’t want to say you’re big in India, but to be big in India is a big deal. It’s a huge audience. Welcome, Felix.

Felix Bast 2:20
Thanks for having me here, Nick.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 2:22
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a great deal about how science is perceived by various communities and perhaps for this chat about science and uncertainty. We can start here with COVID-19. And Courtney, what does the story of mask wearing over the pandemic suggest to us about the challenges of communicating uncertainty?

Courtney Radsch 2:41
Thanks for that question, Nick. I think that’s such a perfect example that illustrates the complexity involved in this situation where you know, the science is evolving as we learn more about this unprecedented Coronavirus. It’s called the novel Coronavirus for a reason it means we don’t really know a lot about how it works. And scientists are learning with all of the new information that they’re receiving. And as the virus evolves early on, there was advice given by top medical scientists that masks did not need to be worn because they weren’t effective in preventing the spread or transmission of the disease. And we knew at the same time that there was a shortage of masks that they were concerned that frontline defenders, nurses, doctors, etc, wouldn’t have access to personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe. So from the very outset, it felt to me like they’re saying this so that we don’t have a run on masks. But if you start from the very beginning of the pandemic, saying something that turns out not to be true, and also just doesn’t really make sense on kind of the common sensical face of it, it became very difficult for scientists and medical experts to then convey what they knew and to have that taken seriously. But by not being upfront about the complexity of the situation, giving the people the benefit of the doubt, to be able to hold complex opinions and behave appropriately. You know, I think that scientists and the medical profession kind of infantilized how they communicated with people. The problem is that because science is evolving, and new information comes into play. This does not mix well with politics, which very much has a form of communication that holds people to whatever they have salad whenever they have said it. And so you have these scientific communication, conflicting with political communication.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 4:41
No, this is actually a really important point. Felix, I want to know here a little bit from you about the situation in India. Tell me a little bit about how things played out what were some of the key challenges that you were facing as a science communicator through the pandemic.

Felix Bast 4:54
Herein India as well I’ve come across the same problems again and again, you know, and just national science communicator, especially the academy of science community, university professors, talk in English. But India you know, India has got a large number of languages – 22 official languages. Not much of the communication happens in our regional language. That, I think, is one of the biggest roadblocks in science communication, especially during the pandemic, the socio-economically privileged class can perfectly understand and communicate in English, but only a teeny tiny fraction of the Indian population can understand English, you know, and that has led to alienation because you know, most of the terms connected with the COVID-19, for example, all these jargons like a mask, or sanitizer, even RT PCR, we don’t really have any equalent in Indian languages. So that has led to this alienation and branding these concept as Western, it’s not our problem. There is a big cognitive bias, actually, there is a name for it: not-invented-here bias. The mask is not invented here, therefore, it doesn’t work. I think that is a biggest learning curve that we had. And only workaround I would say is translation of these common jargons, in consultation with linguists and implementing a policy on the translation of this so that the alienation will not be happening.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 6:17
I think this is a really important observation. There is an issue of language. But of course, the misinformation that you’re talking about is not unique to countries where you have several languages. I mean, the who has said it in the past that actually COVID is an infodemic, as much as anything else suggesting that actually, somehow, misinformation has been as devastating as the virus itself. I’d be curious to hear your reflections on this, Courtney,

Courtney Radsch 6:46
I think that was a powerful statement by the World Health Organization. And I think it is accurate if I look at how the communication has taken place throughout this pandemic, and what we’re facing in terms of, first of all, understanding the scale and scope of the pandemic and its origins and what that meant for the potential type of mitigation efforts, and then the evolution of treatment and then the introduction of vaccines and the efforts to get vaccine mandates. Throughout that entire process there has been misinformation, which is inaccurate information that’s circulating, but not necessarily with any nefarious intent, but also disinformation that is specifically put out there by people who should know better. And I would include among these many world leaders all over the world, we have seen that the rise of populism over the past few years, coupled with the social media inflected communications, info spear, and the pandemic, which is, again, an elite driven phenomenon where scientists play a really important role and figuring out what this is all about.

Journalists play a very important role in reporting to the public and helping inform them. And political and other leaders play a really important role in building consensus and communicating to the public about whether this is an individual issue or a collective issue. And so all of those things have combined, I think, during the pandemic, to indeed create this infodemic, where there is not an understanding of how science works. And so as our understanding of the virus has evolved, along with the fact that the virus has evolved, you know, various variants, et cetera, the best science brings in new facts, updates, its understanding and makes different theories accordingly. But that is, again, in perfect contrast to how political communication works. And we can look at the infodemic, or the pandemic outside of this broader framework of the fake news, framing that has been weaponized against journalism and the press. So that when we got to the pandemic, there’s a lack of trust in the media.

And of course, this is all folded into a media ecosystem that is driven by social media platform algorithms. I think we’re in a post-truth era where the idea that there is a truth is very up for debate. We’re questioning so much about how things work, and coupled with this lack of trust in in elites and institutions has made it really hard to figure out how to address the infodemic aspect of this novel Coronavirus pandemic.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 9:54
I take that point completely. Felix, so as I’m listening to what Courtney is saying here, I’m thinking, we still think that science communicators are there to follow what they call the deficit model, that everybody else has a deficit of knowledge about what’s really happening and that scientists are the experts. And that’s the model that we have followed for the last, I don’t know, 200 years, probably when you think about Western civilization, is this part of the problem with being able to communicate uncertainty?

Felix Bast 10:24
Yeah, I agree with you, Nick. Yes. So this is actually the problem. It doesn’t come intuitively to the public. The science works with uncertainties and probabilities. If you communicate with uncertainties, which is actually the ideal situation, it can sometimes backfire. The science actually is a process towards diminishing uncertainty, understanding the facts. So changing and updating the belief, when the new evidence come that is based in statistical inference. So that exactly is how the science works. That updating of course, intuitively, we all do that, when the new information comes, like, for example, politics, when a politician, it turns out to be a corrupt, you know, we no longer want that person, but somehow that is missing the scientific literacies, kind of completely missing in today’s world.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 11:11
Thanks, Felix, I really want to capture this idea that you expressed about science being a process of the diminishment of uncertainty. And I think what that does is it changes the focus from absolute truth. And it suggests, again, you know, that you’re doing something which is meant to be iterative. Sorry, Courtney, you were going to say something.

Courtney Radsch 11:31
I think there are so many points to follow up on here. I mean, the diminishment of uncertainty does not work in our communication environment. First of all, not how journalism works. And again, journalism is this mediated field through which so much of what the public knows about science has to occur, which means that it’s not just about how scientists communicate. It’s how scientists communicate to journalists, how journalists then communicate to the public and how that is, of course, received. And the problem is, these days, it’s not about what the facts are, and what therefore the result or the outcome is. So much of how people interpret science and other facts are through their identity. And so one of the things with the politicization of the pandemic, is that now you have this link between your political identity, which is increasingly linked with your social identity with your economic identity, we see these differentiation between what people believe and how that is impacted by how they identify. So changing minds by introducing new forms of evidence is not going to be effective unless you address the fact that this is part of their identity.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 12:51
Yeah. And I hear this, Felix, you kind of touched on this earlier where you said, actually, you know, no, we live in this world, where there is discussion about what’s called post-normal science. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what post-normal science means? Because it’s really, as I understand it, understanding that science is now practiced, where it has a lot of implications for social values, and so on.

Felix Bast 13:16
Yes, Nick. So yeah, it’s highly contested. To be honest, what science deals with, it’s just my own take, is that the science deals only with objective realities, there is an analogy, which again, it’s not original, I came across that it goes like this. So imagine a person standing, just to jump from the fifth floor of a tall building, you know, and the scientists can only tell you that there is a very high chance that you will die if you jump, but it doesn’t come under the purview of science that do not jump, because that is a value system, that is a virtue, you know, that is not actually the science. Now, the next one would be the knife, you know, I like to use a very sharp knife for cutting my tomatoes, but the same knife I can use it for killing the persons, depends on the value system, the science don’t have any answer. So that value system, the purview is different. So as the science this doesn’t actually have any overlap. I think that is a very important take away from the COVID 19 pandemic.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 14:14
So basically, what we’re saying is that no, we live in this era of what they call post-normal science. And what happens is that you get science now that has implications on different value systems. But really, it’s helpful to think that science and value systems are quite separate things. I can see Courtney is like: ‘Oh, my God, I cannot believe you just said that.’

Courtney Radsch 14:36
I think that is what many scientists would like to say. But I think that the era we are in has fundamentally shifted that proposal because science is not neutral. The forms of knowledge that you create are not neutral and they have enormous implication for humanity, mankind, equality, etc. If you think about today’s science, technology revolution – yes, the science of what you can do with, you know, network connectivity with, you know, the amazing advances and the telecommunications infrastructure we’ve created, great, but the fact that scientists did not think about what values were embedded in those systems have given rise to what Shoshana Zubov calls the surveillance economy, which is fundamentally reshaping the economic value system that drives much of the economy. It’s given rise to systems of so called justice systems, through healthcare, etc, in ways that have very negative repercussions for historically marginalized populations. Oftentimes for women, and just for all of humanity, your so called objective inquiry into an issue is not objective, it is laden with values, how you inquire into that, who was making the inquiries, what technologies get developed out of those. And I think that right now, we’re in an era where people are increasingly recognizing that, and you’re in this kind of post-normal scientific era, post-truth era. So it’s a really, really challenging time for scientists to communicate. One of the key takeaways is that we have to get away from this idea that, well, let’s just give more evidence and facts. And somehow that will change people’s mind. If anything we’ve learned from this experience, it’s that form of communication is probably not going to be super effective.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 16:34
Courtney, thank you very much for taking us on to the last bit, end of the episode, which is where we answer the question. And it’s an opportunity for both you and Felix, to summarize any takeaways that you’d like. You have 60 seconds. And I’m going to start, Felix, with you. So just answer the question: How do we talk about science and uncertainty?

Felix Bast 17:01
Yes, thanks, Nick. So as per my understanding, there is no substitute for the quality education. So everyone should have a basic level of the scientific literacy that enables us to fight against the grave challenges of the 21st century, including the climate change or pollution or infectious disease. My number one suggestion to the budding science communicators is assume that people are completely illiterate scientifically, and explain in plain simple language, especially the regional language science communication, I think it’s really, really important, you know that the COVID-19 is a fantastic opportunity for the science communicator, because it’s the first time that a science story completely flooded our media, or almost an entire year, the pandemic has taught us the importance that reliable sources and fact checking. I think that spirit should continue forever.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 17:51
And, Courtney, you have 60 seconds to answer the question.

Courtney Radsch 17:54
I think one of the things scientists and communicators can do is to communicate uncertainty, and not conveys certainty when there is not certainty. And I think if you look at the differences between how we’re describing climate change and the pandemic, it’s a good example, because there were degrees of uncertainty raised in climate change that I think were unwarranted given the evidence, whereas there were levels of certainty created around the pandemic that were unwarranted because it’s new and evolving, and there was so much still left to be decided. And similarly, if people in power are conveying inaccurate information, it doesn’t matter how great the sciences, so we have to realize that communication involves identity, and take that into account when we’re describing uncertainty. And think about doing this on a much more personal level, as well as doing it more justice in the media and with journalists so that they can understand how to better report on things that are not black and white, when there are so many levels of uncertainty.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 19:05
Thank you both for what has been a fundamental and fascinating conversation.

Courtney Radsch 19:10
Thank you, Nick.

Felix Bast 19:11
Thank you, Nick, for having me here.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins 19:13
Please join us for our next episode, where the question is how to talk about science and identity. Courtney has already given us a little bit of a preview, we will be discussing why who you think you are has become so important in how you make sense of science and the world around us. To learn more about the series, please visit If you’re in the UK, you can visit the International Science Council website to find out more about the project. This podcast was produced for the International Science Council by BBC StoryWorks commercial productions. Thank you for joining us.

Check out other episodes in the series Unlocking Science and browse the multimedia hub, which explores what science is doing to address the challenges of global sustainability. Each story demonstrates how science works beyond the lab or the text book, engaging communities and making a real world difference.

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