At the start of the pandemic, Elisabeth Marnik – an assistant professor of microbiology and biochemistry in the United States – decided to tackle misinformation about COVID-19 in her spare time. Her Instagram account @sciencewhizliz – where she regularly posts infographics on the virus and vaccines – now has over 26K followers, and she has another 2K followers on Facebook. Here Elisabeth discusses her experiences and why it is important to communicate science with compassion.
As a full-time assistant professor, I have the privilege of teaching students about science. However, it is also important to educate people outside of the classroom, so at the start of the pandemic, I began addressing misinformation about COVID-19 on my personal Instagram and Facebook pages in my free time. I was also motivated by growing up in an anti-vaccine household – I was not vaccinated for anything until I was 23, and a lot of my family are still opposed to vaccination. I wanted to use my personal experiences to reach people who were vaccine-hesitant, or skeptical about science in general. People began sharing my posts publicly, so I launched a separate Instagram account to reach a wider audience.
Instagram was the most appealing because it allowed me to address misinformation in a variety of ways – graphics, lives, videos and stories. Everyone likes to take in new information in different formats, so it’s useful having this versatility. I have also made an accompanying Facebook account so people can share my posts in both places.
The posts that have been shared the most are about why the size of the kid’s vaccine trial was not too small, and a post that summarizes data demonstrating that vaccines do not impact fertility. A lot of my followers are parents just trying to make the best decisions to keep their kids safe, or people who are hesitant about the vaccine and looking for accurate information about things they are concerned about, like fertility, without any judgment.
It can be quite difficult at times – I have gotten some targeted anti-vaccine attacks. People saying that I should lose my son, or I should die or be in jail. They’re really upsetting to receive, and I now get my husband to weed them out of my message request folder so I don’t have to read them. However, the good feedback I get makes up for this and is why I keep going. I have received thousands of messages from people who I’ve helped reassure to get vaccinated or feel more equipped to talk to their own friends and families. These stories of lives saved make all the bad parts worth it.
I feel very frustrated. It’s unfortunate that the pandemic and vaccines have become such a political issue, and it should not be that way. We wouldn’t question a car mechanic and tell them they were fixing our engine wrong unless we were also a trained mechanic. Yet, many people believe that their armchair research is equivalent to all the years of education and training that scientists and medical professionals receive. But what upsets me most is that this misinformation targets people who often have very valid fears and concerns, which are largely the result of past trauma or experience. These people don’t know what to believe and are truly worried, scared and confused. My desire is to help these individuals access scientific research about the vaccine and COVID-19 so that they are equipped to make an informed decision, even if that decision is not necessarily the same one I would make.
That it’s important to be compassionate. Most people with questions just want to make the best decision they can for themselves and their families. I’ve also realized that people desperately want to understand the data and the science. We just make it hard for them to do so by using jargon and putting articles behind paywalls. I may not always succeed, but I always try to communicate information with compassion and in a way that people without a science background can understand.
I think it is a double-edged sword. I blame social media for all the misinformation and disinformation that’s out there, as their algorithms tend to favor inaccurate claims over actual data. But this is why scientists need to be on these platforms as well, to help spread scientific evidence. By communicating on social media, we can reach people who may not interface with science or scientists otherwise and help improve people's understanding of science and show them why it’s important.
The pandemic has shown us what happens when society does not value science communication and science education. This pandemic will one day end, but there will always be other crucial scientific issues that impact people and their health. So, I truly hope that the pandemic will teach those of us in research that we cannot rely on the media to do accurate and successful science communication. We did that for a long time, and it hasn’t worked. I’ve written various articles encouraging and advising scientists on how to make their research more accessible to the public. But to truly change things, institutions also need to value public science communication as an important part of what it means to be an academic and a researcher.
So many! I have connected with so many wonderful science communicators and I now consider many of these people my friends. Some of my favorites include: @sciencewithanni, @niniandthebrain, @unambiguousscience, @deplatformdisease, @dr.risahoshino, @laurel_bristow, @jessicamalatyrivera, @doctor.darien, and @kizzyphd.
I plan to continue my science communication efforts even once the pandemic is over, and am looking forward to being able to address other important science topics. I also would love to explore writing a book. But, in all honesty, between my full-time paid work as an assistant professor and running @sciencewhizliz in my free time, there hasn’t been much time to think about life after the pandemic!
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