APPLY TV Series 1 Episode 1
Blurts hurt! How bad science communication can derail public discourse on Covid-19
APPLY TV is a new series of online talks organised by the COST Action project CA17132: European Network for Argumentation and Public Policy Analysis (APPLY). Its main theme is public argumentation investigated from any of the theoretical perspectives present in the Action: philosophy, linguistics, communication, discourse analysis, computer science, psychology. Each speaker presents her or his most recent work on argumentation in compact episodes of 1hr, with 30 min dedicated to the presentation and 30 min to discussion.
SE1_EP1: Blurts hurt! How bad science communication can derail public discourse on Covid-19
The pandemic of Covid-19 has given science, and in particular medical science, a very prominent role in public debate: the social perception of healthcare professionals has been subverted almost overnight – from slightly distrusted technicians to much revered heroes in the fight against the virus. In turn, this has given them unprecedented media exposure, making their voice extremely influential in the public discourse on Covid-19. Overall, this is a necessary and welcome development, one that carries the promise of improving evidence-based policies and promoting sounder scientific understanding of the facts about the pandemic. However, with great power comes great responsibility: suddenly thrown into the spotlight of a media frenzy, with little preparation on how to handle their newfound communicative role, many medical professionals have been struggling to articulate a clear and effective message, in spite of their technical competence. In this talk I will analyze two prominent examples of this argumentative discomfort: a public disagreement between two medical experts on the severity of the virus at the very beginning of the pandemic in Italy (February / March 2020), and a controversial statement on vaccines by a prominent microbiologist, few weeks before their formal approval from medical authorities (November 2020). I will discuss the argumentative shortcomings of both episodes, to highlight how the road to poor communication is often paved with good intentions. Time permitting, I will also comment on a more widespread argumentative pitfall in pandemic discourse: the obsessive use of the umbrella concept of “Covid-denier” to label dissenting voices, typically employed by self-proclaimed “defenders of science”. While the existence of hardcore deniers of the pandemic is an alarming reality, the choice of levying this charge against anyone who does not align with the received consensus on how to handle the virus is a rhetorical move, one that plays very badly in the highly polarized context of public discourse on Covid-19.
The talk was streamed via the APPLY TV YouTube channel, on 17/02/2021 by 16:00 CET.
Episode 1 available below: