Science, Policy and Pandemics: Communicating Evidence and Uncertainty

8 April 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

“How should governments communicate with citizens when the stakes are so high, and the evidence so uncertain?” asked CSaP Executive Director Dr Rob Doubleday during the recording of the second episode of CSaP’s special podcast series on Science, Policy and Pandemics.

Listen to the discussion here:

This podcast series, produced in partnership with Cambridge Infectious Diseases and the Cambridge Immunology Network, aims to answer questions about our understanding of the current pandemic, including the epidemiology, on what basis governments are making current decisions, how much confidence we can have in the knowledge models are producing, and how to manage the uncertainties involved in the present crisis.

In the second episode, Dr Rob Doubleday spoke with Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and Dr Alexandra Freeman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication. In the context of the current pandemic, they discussed what research has been done on the best way to communicate evidence and uncertainty and the best way to communicate the relationship between expert advice and political decision making.

Dr Freeman, who has written recently about how different countries are reacting to the COVID-19 risk and their governments’ responses, emphasized that communicating uncertainty does not necessarily undermine public trust, either in the evidence or in the communicators of information. Moreover, the more precise you can be about your uncertainty, the less that uncertainty undermines trust – and people’s level of trust in the communicator also affects how they approach information.

Sir David emphasized that when you’re communicating with the public during uncertain times, you want to say what you know and be confident about that. However, you should also immediately follow that up by saying what you don’t know, what you’re doing to find out more about ongoing areas of uncertainty, and that you’ll be providing the public with more information as you know more. That type of humility-driven, transparent communication is a tried and tested model for successful crisis communication. He also emphasized the need for decision-makers to take responsibility for their decisions and to acknowledge that their decisions are evidence-informed, rather than evidence-based, particularly in the context of uncertainty where evidence and models might be contradictory.

Throughout the discussion, Sir David and Dr Freeman also addressed whether disagreement about the science leads to confusion and mistrust, whether openness about uncertainties leads to healthier debate and greater public confidence, and what we know about the levels of public trust in scientists and in expert knowledge.

CSaP's Science and Policy Podcast's special series on Science, Policy and Pandemics is available across all major podcasting platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Google Play, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Podbean, ListenNotes, Acast, Player.FM, Podcast Addict, and Castbox.


Photo by Hello I'm Nik ๐ŸŽž on Unsplash

Photo by Hello I'm Nik ๐ŸŽž on Unsplash