ITHACA, N.Y. – Scientists, policymakers and the media ought to acknowledge inherent uncertainties in epidemiological fashions projecting the unfold of COVID-19 and keep away from “catastrophizing” worst-case situations, in keeping with new analysis from Cornell College.

Threats about dire outcomes might mobilize extra folks to take public well being precautions within the quick time period however invite criticism and backlash if uncertainties within the fashions’ knowledge and assumptions will not be clear and later show flawed, researchers discovered.

Amongst political elites, criticism from Democrats particularly might have the unintended consequence of eroding public belief in the usage of fashions to information pandemic insurance policies and in science extra broadly, their analysis exhibits.

“Acknowledging that fashions are grounded in uncertainty just isn’t solely the extra correct method to speak about scientific fashions, however political leaders and the media can try this with out additionally having the impact of undermining confidence in science,” stated Sarah Kreps, authorities professor and co-author of the research.

Kreps and Doug Kriner, authorities professor, carried out 5 experiments – surveying greater than 6,000 American adults in Could and June – to look at how politicians’ rhetoric and media framing affected help for utilizing COVID-19 fashions to information insurance policies about lockdowns or financial reopenings, and for science typically.

The researchers discovered that completely different displays of scientific uncertainty – acknowledging it, contextualizing it or weaponizing it – can have essential implications for public coverage preferences and attitudes.

For instance, they stated, Republican elites have been extra more likely to assault or “weaponize” uncertainty in epidemiological fashions. However the survey experiments confirmed that their criticism, which the general public apparently anticipated, did not shift confidence in fashions or in science. Assist for COVID-19 science from a number of Republican governors who break up with their occasion’s mainstream additionally didn’t have an effect on confidence.

Criticism by Democrats, in distinction, registered as stunning and was influential. When proven a quote by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo disparaging virus fashions, survey respondents’ help for utilizing fashions to information reopening coverage dropped by 13% and help for science usually decreased, too.

“It means that the onus is on Democrats to be significantly cautious with how they impart about COVID-19 science,” Kriner stated. “Due to well-liked expectations concerning the alignments of the events on science extra broadly and on points like COVID-19 and local weather change, they’ll inadvertently erode confidence in science even when that is not their intent.”

One other approach of ignoring or downplaying uncertainty is to current narratives that sensationalize or “catastrophize” probably the most alarming projections and potential penalties of inaction. An April article in The Atlantic about Georgia’s reopening technique, for instance, referred to the state’s “experiment in human sacrifice.”

The researchers’ experiments confirmed that kind of COVID-19 communication considerably elevated public help – by 21% – for utilizing fashions to information coverage, with beneficial properties primarily attributed to individuals who have been much less scientifically literate.


The research, “Mannequin Uncertainty, Political Contestation and Public Belief in Science: Proof from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was printed in Science Advances.

For extra info, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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