Tips For Talking About The Coronavirus With Friends, Family : Short Wave Liz Neeley, science communication expert and executive director of The Story Collider, shares some advice for how to talk to your friends and family about the coronavirus. Here's her article for The Atlantic: 'How To Talk About The Coronavirus.'

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How To Talk About The Coronavirus With Friends And Family

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

There's this thing known as the two-step flow theory of communication. Basically, the idea is that information about, say, a big worldwide news event, like a pandemic, starts with the media. That information is picked up by a group of people who are really engaged and informed who then filter what they know out to others.

LIZ NEELEY: It's not just, like, the media sends out a message into the world and everyone hears it...

SOFIA: Right (laughter). Yeah.

NEELEY: ...And listens to it and believes it. There are some people who are highly motivated or maybe they have expertise following issues really carefully. And then their advice, their judgments, what they're saying about it, influence other people who are hearing about the same thing in the news.


SOFIA: That's Liz Neely, science communication extraordinaire and the executive director of The Story Collider. And maybe what she just said sounds familiar to you. Maybe you've spent some time talking to friends and family about the coronavirus and why it's so important to take it seriously. If so, you might be what Liz calls a nerd node of trust.

NEELEY: I love that.

SOFIA: I mean...

NEELEY: Yeah, I totally stole that (laughter).

SOFIA: It also sounds like it'd be a great name for, like, if you had a D&D troop - you know what I mean? - that you relied on. You know what I'm talking about.

NEELEY: Mmm hmm. Just in theory.

SOFIA: Yeah.


SOFIA: So tell me about that.

NEELEY: So this is an idea that Emily Willingham had and wrote about in Forbes in 2013. But to be a nerd node of trust is that you are not pretending to expertise you don't have, but you're helping your immediate network - your friends and your family - make sense of and interpret this glut of information they're receiving.

SOFIA: One of the biggest stories in our lifetime is a science story, which means we are all trying to talk about science with our friends and family. And that is not always easy.

NEELEY: It's hard (laughter) for us all figuring out what to attend to, how much we should be worrying about the latest development or how hopeful we should be about the latest thing everyone is saying is going to be the solution.

SOFIA: Here's where some sweet, sweet data-driven science communication comes into it. And Liz Neeley is an expert. So today, she has four tips for how to talk about the coronavirus with your friends and family. She rounded those tips up in a recent article for The Atlantic. And they are really helpful, whether you are a nerd node already or simply aspire to the title.

I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: So we're going to talk through four ways you can help people around you be better informed about the pandemic. First up, start where you are with the people you are close to.

NEELEY: Right. So use the strength of the connections you already have. People who love you and trust you, like your friends and family, are paying a lot more attention to you. They're also much more likely to take you seriously. And so I think of them as my immediate audience. Like, when I'm worried about how do I combat misinformation, I start there.

SOFIA: So you said that being an effective science communicator requires understanding your identity as a messenger. What does that mean?

NEELEY: I think of it like this. I'm a white woman. I just turned 40. I know I am not the best person to be an active messenger in communities outside my own.

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: And I think I've seen great examples of medical and scientific professionals recognizing this and then partnering with amazing other messengers. So for example, when Dr. Tony Fauci did an Instagram live with Steph Curry...

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: ...That reaches an entirely different audience. And people who trust Steph are more likely to, like, be attending to that and listening to that and feeling connected to this important science.

SOFIA: OK, second tip - pick your battles. Good advice, generally speaking. But tell me what you mean by that in this context.

NEELEY: What we know is that when it comes to science communication, people always are processing information through lots of different lenses, and one of those has to do with protecting our identity. If you set up a conversation in which someone feels personally attacked or particularly like their ideology, their political affiliation is under attack, then they just start processing information in different ways.

SOFIA: Right. Right.

NEELEY: And so when I say pick your battles, I was thinking about - you know, starting where I am and in my own family - I don't want to confuse political arguments, which we can and must have because the stakes are so high right now, with this role that I'm trying to play as an effective science communicator.

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: And so the best way that you can sort of lower those barriers is to identify and affirm your shared identity and your values.

SOFIA: Sure.

NEELEY: What are the things that bring you together, that you agree on? Because then you're more likely to be able to, again, be trusted and have people listen to what you're trying to say because they don't feel like they're under attack.

SOFIA: And I feel like, you know, that coupled with what you were talking about before is another reason why we need all different types of people being scientists and being spokespeople for scientists - right? - because your shared values, your shared cultures, all of those play a huge role in whether or not you're going to listen to the person that's talking to you.

NEELEY: Absolutely. Yeah.

SOFIA: No. 3 - avoid unforced errors.

NEELEY: Oh, you know I love a sports metaphor.


NEELEY: This one shocked me. I remember in my early days of learning about science communication - like, just innately, my instinct is, if I hear something wrong, I want to, like, tell everybody - be like, you might have heard this; that's wrong (laughter). Turns out, our science says that doing it that way inadvertently reinforces misinformation.

SOFIA: Right.

NEELEY: And the way it - the reason this is working is that the more you hear something, even if you know it's incorrect, the more it just sort of lingers. There's persistent effects. You've heard it so often that it starts to feel true. It just feels familiar.

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: And so instead, what I'm suggesting is using a whole variety of tools. Some of them are about simple things like dialogue. Like, if you're worried about bad advice that you're seeing being propagated around medication, you know, maybe what you would say would be like, hey, Mom, I've been seeing a whole lot of stuff in the news lately about different medications. Some of it's really wrong. Have you been thinking about this? What are you worried about?

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: And then that way, A, you've given, like, a pre-exposure warning (laughter)...

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: ...That there is inaccurate information out there. B, you've opened up a line of dialogue where, you know - so in my case, I'm thinking about my mom. If she was worried about what kind of fever-reducing, like, pain reliever should I use versus is there anything I can take that will protect me, I'll know which way to take the conversation.

SOFIA: Yeah. So you kind of ask them - instead of saying the thing that is wrong, you kind of open a dialogue about that thing, but you don't actually say, explicitly, the thing that is incorrect that has been circulating.

NEELEY: Exactly.

SOFIA: All right. Last tip, Liz Neeley - easiest to remember - be honest and transparent.

NEELEY: I think this idea of honesty and transparency has value in multiple ways. I'm asking everyone to acknowledge and accept the boundaries of their own expertise and to know where your knowledge ends...

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: ...Because you don't want to fall subject to the idea that you latch onto one particular piece of advice and then just keep saying it over and over and over again because in a fast-moving emergency situation like this, we see advice changing. We've watched that unfold...

SOFIA: Sure.

NEELEY: ...Over the question of whether or not we should wear masks.

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: And so I think that explaining how you've reached a conclusion and why allows you more easily to change directions if and when that expert advice tells us, all right, the situation has shifted.

SOFIA: So if you're taking these tips out into the world, there's an idea called the Stockdale Paradox that you say could be useful.

NEELEY: This one was really meaningful to me. It's the question of how do we look at all of this complex research, some of which is really grim, without losing heart? So the Stockdale Paradox comes from the story of how Vice Admiral James Stockdale survived almost eight years of captivity and torture as a prisoner of war.

And he said that he never gave up hope and belief in the end of the story, but that he knew who didn't survive, and he said it was the people who would come in and say, we're going to be out of here by Christmas. And Christmas would come and go. They'd say, we're going to be out of here by Easter. Easter would come and go. And eventually, they would give up. They'd die of a broken heart, is what he said.

And so the Stockdale Paradox, for me, it's about maintaining an unwavering hope and belief in the end of this story, that we will come through this. That it may not be soon...

SOFIA: Right.

NEELEY: ...But we will look at the truth. We will look at the science. We will follow the advice from the experts. We will do our best as individuals in every way that we can help, and collectively, we will go on.


SOFIA: Liz Neeley - she's the executive director of The Story Collider, an organization dedicated to telling true personal stories about science. Learn more about them at the link in our episode notes.

This one was produced by Brent Baughman, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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