Traditionally, researchers have been told to be persuasive with their arguments and to “sell the science”, especially when communicating to non-scientific audiences. While this may work in terms of getting across key messages, omitting important information or presenting an unbalanced view of the data has the potential to damage trust in the research. In order to gain trust, scientists need to inform, not persuade, allowing individuals to make up their own minds. Michael Blastland and colleagues outline the key principles for communicating research to wider audiences that can help build trust and aid decision-making.
An important part of informing individuals on medical research, is conveying a fully balanced of view of the evidence. It is important to recognise that all individuals have some level of psychological biases and so true balance may be difficult to achieve. However, as medical communicators, these instincts must be challenged.
Another important component of medical communication is disclosing uncertainties about the research. Due to fears of confusion for non-scientific audiences, uncertainties have not always been adequately disclosed by the media. However, when investigating how to inform the public on the limitations of COVID-19 testing, the authors found that full disclosure of uncertainties (i.e. the possibility of a false negative test) did not affect trustworthiness of the data. Rather, the messaging helped to avoid false assurances gained from a negative test result. As such, the degree of uncertainty should always be part of core messages and margins of error or ranges should be reported rather than just exact numbers.
As explained by John Krebs who was chair of the UK Food Standards Agency during the BSE food crises in the 2000s: “I think you just have to go for a straightforward and honest way of communicating. People appreciate that.”
Another way that individuals assess the credibility of research is by the quality of the data. Notably, through their research, the authors found that the general public may notice the omission of key information on the quality of data and explain that:
“As scientists, we tend to underestimate the sophistication of our audiences’ sensitivity to cues of quality and how these affect trust.”
It is therefore vital when communicating to all audiences that key aspects regarding data quality, such as the size and source of the dataset, are conveyed so that individuals can gauge the relevance for themselves.
In a world where misinformation spreads rapidly on social media, there are concerns that presenting the complete picture of research together with uncertainties and complexities may give a foothold to false messages. However, pre-emptively warning individuals against attempts to sow doubt via misinformation (prebunking), is a powerful way to combat misunderstanding. For prebunking to work effectively, the concerns of the audience and any potential misunderstandings need careful consideration by the medical community before the spread of misinformation occurs.
Trust in clinical research is critical to allow patients, the general public or policy makers to make informed decisions based on the data. Always aiming to “sell the science” may damage trust in research and lead to behaviours that have a negative impact on health and society. It is therefore important that the broader medical community and the media consider the key principles for effective evidence communication for all audiences, and aim to transparently disclose all the relevant information on the research to facilitate evidence-based decision-making.
With thanks to our sponsor, Aspire Scientific Ltd