Michel CLAESSENS, European Commission & Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down and triggered economic, diplomatic, political, and social crises. It had also a huge impact on the scientific community and on science communication, as highlighted by some spectacular effects :
- Many scientists/experts on prime time TV
- Scientific committees in the spotlight
- High visibility to research in progress or in the making
- Science illiteracy and “innumeracy” highlighted
But it turns out that there was a price to pay: scientific publications retracted, marketing of medicines, scientific vagaries, divergences between experts, etc.
The pandemic was marked by a change in scientific communication. The visibility given to research still in progress or in the making or even at an early stage of discussion (and also to pseudosciences) has been disproportionate. We have been deluged with numbers and statistics (which largely emphasised the steady increase in the number of cases). Aside from science communication, there has been much misinformation and disinformation around (the latter being different from the former by a desire to deceive) that the WHO set up a new unit and a specific strategy for try and counteract the negative effects of infodemic.
The COVID-19 infodemic confirms that there is no direct link between the media coverage and the death toll (remember the Fukushima Daiichi accident). However, what we know about COVID-19 and the coronavirus does not come directly to us from the laboratories but from “mediascience,” that is science that we receive through the media. Mediascience does not only convey scientific content, it also contains non-scientific arguments (images, people, stories etc) that influence the public and our perception of a technoscientific risk. It is a distorting—and also a distorted—mirror of science which feeds up the diffuse impression to live in a “society of fear”. This is in turn amplified by the media. This ‘vicious circle’ is particularly true in the field of health, where powerful and omnipresent technology has paradoxically nurtured a permanent anxiety. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1962. This is what I have seen at ITER: some people are scared by the power of science and technology. In short, our health is now like our car: we cannot repair it alone! We depend on various people and instruments—in fact a whole system. Understanding the risks concerning our health—which include also the possible treatments—requires for the medical staff to communicate about uncertainties and unknowns, which may also reinforce our anxiety.
The communication will review recent research and public opinion surveys, and compare practices and attitudes between China, Europe and United States. The aim is to try and answer the following question: in this case, did science communication serve the scientific community?
 M. Claessens, Allo la science ?, Paris, Hermann, 2011.