Covid-19 made science communication more important than ever—but we’re still having the same problems we had 20 years ago

The covid-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in health research translation, but it is far from the first time we’ve had problems with medical research and misinformation.

A recent University of Sydney editorial registered concerns that systemic failings might be exacerbating the issue of health misinformation across the covid-19 pandemic. The writers concluded that better oversight of research, more transparency in peer review, better oversight of publishing houses and improved public access to quality research would help address the issue of false or misleading science information.

The public has been victim of egregiously misleading medical science information before.

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield was published in The Lancet, where he and several co-authors claimed they had discovered the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This link was non-existent, and The Lancet retracted the article when presented with overwhelming evidence that the research was fraudulent.

The 2010 retraction occurred after more than a decade of confusing media commentary about the topic, in which items of evidence were exposed and then argued in the public eye. Investigations were hobbled by a mix of intense public attention and a lack of immediate clarification—it took time to learn that Wakefield’s data couldn’t be replicated. This, combined with the relatively low science literacy in the general population, facilitated the development of significant anti-vaccine sentiment across the developed world.

It’s been called one of the most damaging pieces of medical misinformation of the 20th century.

Covid-19 misinformation has proven trickier to characterise. Unlike the MMR vaccine article of the 90s, which has now the benefit of decades of analysis and hindsight, the covid-19 pandemic is a developing situation and a disease subject to relatively rapid mutation. It is also complicated by the democratisation of the information landscape. In 1998, when Wakefield’s fraudulent paper was published, the ubiquity of social media had hardly been conceptualised, let alone experienced.

Despite the evident differences, the contributors to health research misinformation are oddly similar.

For the public, a poor understanding of the scientific method and a sympathetic but impractical desire for absolute certainty, alongside a lack of access to high quality information and a dearth of ideologically-neutral sources of research translation, are still leading to the spread of misinformation about critical health topics today.

For researchers, the publish-or-perish culture of academia demands publication, and bias, conflict of interest and lack of transparency in peer review are still hot topics today. Science communication is not noticeably superior to what it was in the 90s—indeed, now we have academics, untrained in science communication, cramming explanations into 280 character tweets. But even medical research journalists reporting in mainstream news sources have been guilty of misrepresenting or distorting health information to a public poorly-equipped to understand it throughout the pandemic.

Robust science communication is a vital contributor to a healthy and well-educated population, but it’s unclear how much we’ve learnt from past failures: in 2021, people still had low health literacy and a poor understanding of how to protect themselves, further muddied by plentiful misinformation across diverse media sources.

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