From the Journals

‘Post-truth era’ hurts COVID-19 response, trust in science


Public health implications

Public health and media experts alike say the PNAS study findings are disheartening but underscore the need for doctors and scientists to do a better job of communicating about COVID-19 and other pressing issues.

Dr. Limaye, from Johns Hopkins, is particularly concerned about the rise in conspiracy theories that has led to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

“When we speak to individuals about getting the COVID vaccine…the types of concerns that come up now are very different than they were 8 years ago,” she says. “The comments we used to hear were much more related to vaccine safety. [People] would say, ‘I’m worried about an ingredient in the vaccine’ or ‘I’m worried that my kiddo has to get three different shots within 6 months to have a series dose completed.’”

But now, a lot of comments they receive are about government and pharma conspiracies.

What that means is doctors and scientists must do more than simply say “here are the facts” and “trust me, I’m a doctor or a scientist,” she says. And these approaches don’t only apply to public health.

“It’s funny, because when we talk to climate change scientists, as vaccine [specialists], we’ll say we can’t believe that people think COVID is a hoax,” she says. “And they’re like, ‘Hold my beer, we’ve been dealing with this for 20 years. Hello, it’s just your guys’ turn to deal with this public denial of science.’”

Dr. Limaye is also concerned about the impacts on funding for scientific research.

“There’s always been a really strong bipartisan effort with regards to funding for science, when you look at Congress and when you look at appropriations,” she says. “But what ended up happening, especially with the Trump administration, was that there was a real shift in that. We’ve never really seen that before in past generations.”

So, what’s the big take-home message?

Dr. Limaye believes doctors and public health experts must show more empathy – and not be combative or arrogant – in communicating science in one-on-one conversations. This month, she’s launching a new course for parents, school administrators, and nurses on how to do precisely that.

“It’s really all about how to have hard conversations with people who might be anti-science,” she says. “It’s being empathetic and not being dismissive. But it’s hard work, and I think a lot of people are just not cut out for it and just don’t have the time for it…You can’t just say, ‘Well, this is science, and I’m a doctor’ – that doesn’t work anymore.”

Brendan Nyhan, PhD, a Dartmouth College political scientist, echoes those sentiments in a separate paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, he suggests that providing accurate, fact-based information to counter false claims may actually backfire and reinforce some people’s unfounded beliefs.

“One response to the prevalence of mistaken beliefs is to try to set the record straight by providing accurate information – for instance, by providing evidence of the scientific consensus on climate change,” he writes. “The failures of this approach, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘deficit model’ in science communication, are well-known.”

Dr. Nyhan argues two things make some people more prone to believe falsehoods:

What scientists call “ingrouping,” a kind of tribal mentality that makes some people choose social identity or politics over truth-seeking and demonize others who don’t agree with their views

The rise of high-profile political figures, such as Trump, who encourage their followers to indulge in their desire for “identify-affirming misinformation”

Dr. Scheffer says the most important thing for doctors, health experts, and scientists to recognize is that it’s crucial to gain the trust of someone who may believe fictions over facts to make any persuasive argument on COVID-19 or any other issue.

He also has a standard response to those who present falsehoods to him as facts that he suggests anyone can use: “That is interesting. Would you mind helping me understand how you came to that opinion?”

A version of this article first appeared on


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