by Judith Curry
“Avoid unwarranted certainty, neat narratives and partisan presentation; strive to inform, not persuade.”
I just spotted this Comment in Nature: Five rules for evidence communication. Once I spotted co-author David Spiegenhalter, I knew this would be good. I have definitely been in need of an antidote to the Covid-19 and global warming propaganda that I’ve come across lately. I’m also working on a new climate change presentation; this provides an excellent check list.
Here is a [link] to the article (freely accessible). Excerpts:
There are myriad examples from the current pandemic of which we might ask: have experts always been explicit in acknowledging unknowns? Complexity? Conflicts of interest? Inconvenient data? And, importantly, their own values?
Our small, interdisciplinary group at the University of Cambridge, UK, collects empirical data on issues such as how to communicate uncertainty, how audiences decide what evidence to trust, and how narratives affect people’s decision-making. Our aim is to design communications that do not lead people to a particular decision, but help them to understand what is known about a topic and to make up their own minds on the basis of that evidence. In our view, it is important to be clear about motivations, present data fully and clearly, and share sources.
We recognize that the world is in an ‘infodemic’, with false information spreading virally on social media. Therefore, many scientists feel they are in an arms race of communication techniques. But consider the replication crisis, which has been blamed in part on researchers being incentivized to sell their work and focus on a story rather than on full and neutral reporting of what they have done. We worry that the urge to persuade or to tell a simple story can damage credibility and trustworthiness.
So how do we demonstrate good intentions? We have to be open about our motivations, conflicts and limitations. Scientists whose objectives are perceived as prioritizing persuasion risk losing trust.
- Inform, not persuade
- Offer balance, not false balance
- Disclose uncertainties
- State evidence quality
- Inoculate against misinformation
When zoologist John Krebs became chair of the UK Food Standards Agency in the 2000s, he faced a deluge of crises, including dioxins in milk and the infectious cattle disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy. He adopted the following strategy:
- say what you know;
- what you don’t know;
- what you are doing to find out;
- what people can do in the meantime to be on the safe side; and
- that advice will change.
Quick tips for sharing evidence
The aim is to ‘inform but not persuade’, and — as the philosopher of trust Onora O’Neill says — “to be accessible, comprehensible, usable and assessable”.
- Address all the questions and concerns of the target audience.
- Anticipate misunderstandings; pre-emptively debunk or explain them.
- Don’t cherry-pick findings.
- Present potential benefits and possible harms in the same way so that they can be compared fairly.
- Avoid the biases inherent in any presentation format (for example, use both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ framing together).
- Use numbers alone, or both words and numbers.
- Demonstrate ‘unapologetic uncertainty’: be open about a range of possible outcomes.
- When you don’t know, say so; say what you are going to do to find out, and by when.
- Highlight the quality and relevance of the underlying evidence (for example, describe the data set).
- Use a carefully designed layout in a clear order, and include sources.
Trust is crucial. Always aiming to ‘sell the science’ doesn’t help the scientific process or the scientific community in the long run, just as it doesn’t help people (patients, the public or policymakers) to make informed decisions in the short term. That requires good evidence communication. Ironically, we hope we’ve persuaded you of that.
The Supplementary Information is a longer version of this, well worth reading also.