An opinion piece of a student in India raising an important issue about accessible and accurate communication of scientific research.
Aishwarya Viswamitra is a student in India who writes about the frustrations she, and many other scientists, are experiencing about the public’s blind following of popular news, that has not been scientifically proven. She highlights the dangers for the public and urges scientific and educational institutions to make their information more user friendly for the public. Her piece is specifically written with Indian communities in mind but is relevant from a global perspective.
The pandemic that COVID-19 has become is dangerous on many levels. Those with compromised immunity are at a disadvantage when it comes to recovering from the disease, while lower sections of society are at a severe financial and social disadvantage when it comes to surviving the lockdown measures imposed in various countries. The rate at which the coronavirus has swept through Earth’s population can be compared only to that of the misinformation that is being spread along with it. Whether it is WhatsApp university, badly informed local TV channels or simply pure paranoia, misinformation has spread the coronavirus’s reach making its extermination extremely difficult. The amount of misinformation out there is mind-boggling. For those who seek credible sources, it can be very frustrating and in times like these could also lead to anxiety.
This video by Ninja Nerd on COVID -19 was published in March this year and since then, much has happened research-wise as well as conspiracy-theory wise. Was this virus manufactured in Wuhan’s labs? Will heat actually kill it? Will singing ‘Corona go’ repel the virus (if not scientifically, the lack of pitch in the minister’s voice hopefully would)?
I am interested in video production and science communication. I, in fact, work for a science portal called Research Matters which has been tackling misconceptions every day since this disease’s outbreak. Therefore, I would like to look at this video from a different point of view. As of July 3rd, this video had 4.7 million views. A conspiracy video released a month afterwards by Sky news Australia on Wuhan’s role in COVID-19 already has 3.6 million views.
As scientists, we must ask ourselves, who is our information reaching? Does it really help to throw numbers and pie charts at people constantly? Will people who don’t question hoaxes nor turn to science for proofs watch a 50-minute long video on the science of COVID-19? Are we actually trying to fight fire with facts?
This is not to negate the efforts gone into Ninja Nerd’s video. To be fair, Indian scientists also tried to reach out to the larger community by forming groups like Indian Scientists’ Response to CoViD-19 (ISRC). The idea was to not only bring researchers in various fields together during these trying times, but also bring the science to people. They organized talks (webinars) to engage with the public. To address the fake news abound COVID19, they came up with various myth-busting posters in as many as 15 different (Indian) languages. They also addressed the question of mental health during the pandemic. But how far are we going to reach when we are tackling Amitabh Bachchan’s video about house flies transmitting COVID-19? In a country where politicians and film stars are seen as the intellectuals, where do scientists even come in?
I believe that this disease needs to be a wakeup call on how we communicate science to the public. Using a whiteboard might work in the classroom but when we want to get everyone’s attention, it simply will not and does not work. Case in point, Kurzgesagt’s video on the coronavirus has over 25.5 million views and was published three days after the Ninja Nerds video. Using animations and simple ‘here’s what it is’, ‘here’s what is going to happen’, and ‘here’s what you have to do’ statements help way more than explaining the genesis of the disease. Yes, the video helps science progress, but there is no point in science progressing if the public does not believe it.
The utter lack of Indian science communication is particularly shameful. How do we expect funding to come in if no one in India knows what is happening in our laboratories? Scientists need to be more accessible and available to talk to the media otherwise, how is India going to tackle the aeon long crisis of misinformation? Everyone wants to remain apolitical. But somehow, that has become synonymous with hiding in the shadows. Other than India bioscience, Research Matters, and a few others, where is Indian science translated into layman terms?
A lot of international universities put their courses online and have high functioning websites where every bit of research news is published. How else did HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) reach where it is today? When will Indian universities follow suit? When will they start YouTube channels that everyone can access? When will their websites convey what is going on in their labs? Because of the lack of all these facilities, the public has turned to those people who have active twitter handles and are conveying ‘science’ however nonsensical it is. There’s simply no place to turn for real information that actually makes sense to everyone.
We cannot continue to make science understandable for the elite or for the already informed. The simple reason? It’s obviously not helping. Now is the time for all Indian institutes to collaborate, all be it via zoom and decide a course of action to convey the truth in a user friendly way. If scientists don’t take the lead on this, others will and misinformation can be severely damaging to society.
3rd year BS-MS student
IISER Mohali, INDIA