As leaders in Wisconsin and throughout the United States try to convince the public to engage in safer behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, both scientists and government officials have to struggle with a confounding issue.
“One of the big dilemmas that we’re facing with COVID is countering information that we know to be wrong,” says Dietram Scheufele. “But we’re trying to correct that with science that we’re not quite sure will turn out to be right.”
During The UW Now Livestream on October 15, Scheufele, a UW professor and the Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication, joined UW School of Medicine and Public Health professor William Hartman, MD, for a joint conversation: first about the state of UW research, and then about the effort to help the public understand the best available information.
Hartman, a faculty member in the Department of Anesthesiology, has been one of the UW’s leaders in research into COVID-19 therapeutics. He is the university’s principal investigator on clinical trials for convalescent plasma, and he described the early days of that study and current work on other potential treatments.
“To get things going, we had a concept, but we had no plan and we had no money,” he said. “But that didn’t matter to the UW. They said we’re going to build it, and then we’re going to tell others how to do it.”
Scheufele raised the question of whether there really is an “infodemic” around the coronavirus, as the World Health Organization has claimed. He looked at three particular problems that the pandemic has highlighted: what appears to be good scientific information sometimes turns out to be wrong; due to political or social outlook, people interpret the same facts differently; and the role of scientists is not to make policy but rather to advise those who do. For these reasons, it’s difficult to get people to understand and accept a common outlook on COVID-19.
“Throwing facts and telling people why they’re wrong about their behaviors … can in some cases backfire,” he said, “meaning that people can become more entrenched in their positions because we’re telling people why they’re wrong rather than really engaging with them.”
The speakers each gave a brief presentation, and then both took questions from viewers who followed the event live on YouTube. Mike Knetter, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, hosted the conversation and served as moderator.
To hear more from Hartman and Scheufele, you can view a recording of The UW Now. The next event in the series will be October 20 and will focus on the UW football program.