Rethink science communication for the post-pandemic era


The following article is authored by Niels G. Mede.


  • Many popular discussions on the societal role of science and science communication have centred on two narratives: diagnoses of widespread expert distrust and misinformation as well as solutions hypothesising that increased knowledge transfer alone will resolve such problems
  • While these narratives contain legitimate arguments, they are often simplistic, lack empirical evidence, disregard societal agency or warranted reservations and overlook complexities of science communication environments.
  • To address distrust and misinformation, science communication repertoires must be reconsidered, which requires inclusive social-scientific research and ethical reflections.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the salience of science in news reporting, social media discourse and policy making processes more than many other events in recent history: Virologists were featured prominently in newspapers, online users discussed medical advice on social networking sites, and politicians argued about the latest epidemiological evidence in parliamentary debates (Metcalfe et al., 2020). The heightened significance of academic expertise has refuelled discussions on how societies should communicate about science to ensure that individual and political decisions are based on the “best available evidence” – and to account for barriers to this, such as public distrust towards scientists and a presumed overabundance of false and misleading information that was described as an “infodemic” (OECD, 2020; WHO, 2021).


These discussions did not only take place within the scientific community, but extended to news and mass media – where they centred on two narratives. The first narrative revolved around pessimistic problem diagnoses: Media suggested that substantial parts of the public distrust experts, reject empirical evidence, deem scientific knowledge inferior to common sense and uncontrollably spread pseudoscientific misinformation, which would further undermine the societal status of academic expertise. This was visible, for example, in prominent claims of a “crisis of expertise” (Guilhot, 2021), Hollywood portrayals of an anti-science lay public (Mede, 2022), headlines describing an emerging “anti-science populism” (Cockerell, 2020), commentaries warning about a “rising tide of fake news” (Hasen, 2022) and frequent use of the “infodemic” metaphor (Simon and Camargo, 2021). The second popular narrative focused on mechanistic problem solutions: Several journalists and decision-makers assumed that the “crisis of expertise” could be addressed by communicating ever more scientific knowledge to the general public. Educating the distrustful, they hoped, would finally make people “listen to the experts” (Williams, 2020) and stop falling for misinformation (Monbiot, 2020).


These two narratives contain legitimate arguments. Indeed, there are many studies showing public distrust towards science, populist criticism of scientific expertise and science-related misinformation circulating in social media, which substantiate those popular problem diagnoses (e.g., Brennen et al., 2021; Chen et al., 2023; Merkley and Loewen, 2021). Indeed, there is evidence that providing publics with accurate scientific knowledge, increasing science education efforts and teaching people skills to detect false information are reasonable solutions to these problems (e.g., Agley et al., 2021; van der Linden, 2022; Whitehead et al., 2023). Yet both these narratives are somewhat naïve, short-sighted or even misleading. Nonetheless, they tend to persist in public discourse and policy making processes. This, however, prevents science communication from being well equipped for the post-pandemic era, which may offer similar challenges to those of the pandemic, such as public reservations against research on gene drives, quantum computing, nuclear fusion or Artificial Intelligence.


Diagnoses of widespread distrust towards science and susceptibility to misinformation fall short in at least three ways. First, they tend to be overly simplistic: Science communication research demonstrates that cross-cultural differences, temporal variation, topical differences and a growing pluralisation of science communication audiences prohibit making generalised claims of a monolithic public opinion on science (e.g., Schäfer and Metag, 2021). Second, popular problem diagnoses are often overly confident: Many are not based on robust, systematic evidence, as there are contradictory findings, few replication studies, only single investigations of countries beyond the Global North and several null findings. For instance, some studies have found no or limited effects of being exposed to false information (e.g., Boulianne and Humprecht, 2023). Third, the common narrative that the COVID-19 outbreak undermined public confidence in scientists is – at least for some contexts – overly pessimistic. For example, multiple studies show that trust in scientists (rather than distrust) and rejection of populist attitudes to science (rather than support) increased as the pandemic hit (Bromme et al., 2022; Mede and Schäfer, 2022).


Solutions that aim to address a supposedly distrustful and manipulable public by teaching people scientific facts and educating them about the perils of misinformation are sometimes similarly ill-conceived. On the one hand, they are often based on the flawed premise that distrust and misinformation susceptibility are merely due to knowledge or literacy deficits. Yet sceptical orientations towards science and vulnerability to false information may not only result from a lack of understanding, but from political preferences and ideological worldviews – which literacy interventions can barely circumvent (Ecker et al., 2022). Moreover, politically motivated reasoning may prevent the target groups of these interventions from engaging with them in the first place. In addition, conceiving “knowledge inoculation” as a distrust antidote can be normatively problematic, as it can be seen as “socially engineering” the opinion of a submissive citizenry as per the will of policy makers and scientists (Freiling et al., 2023). It may disregard societal agency, active citizenship and potentially warranted reservations toward science. And it ignores that a certain degree of public scrutiny of science might be valuable for a functioning democracy, which depends on checks and balances on those in charge of the production of knowledge.


What remains, then? Distrust towards science and pseudoscientific misinformation do exist, and knowledge transfer and literacy interventions can be helpful countermeasures. However, being equipped for the challenges of contemporary science communication environments requires accurate, evidence-based problem diagnoses as well as ethical, well-designed problem solutions (see Scheufele et al., 2021). This should involve more inclusive, comparative and systematic social-scientific research – for example, beyond the Global North – and a reconsideration of our theoretical and practical science communication repertoires (Dutilh Novaes and Ivani, 2022; Womersley, 2022). Such a reconsideration could entail science communication strategies that target opinion leaders of sceptical science audiences, leverage the media they use, seek dialogue and exchange with them in order to understand their political motivations, account for differences across cultures, issues and population milieus and involve financial support for quality science journalism. It may also ask whether scientists themselves might have given people legitimate reasons to distrust them and whether a certain degree of distrust may actually be worthwhile (see Scheufele, 2022).


Whether these strategies will resonate with distrustful population segments and fulfil ethical standards remains to be systematically assessed and critically discussed – within and beyond science communication scholarship, within and beyond the Global North and within and beyond the specific case of the COVID-19 pandemic. This will hopefully ensure that science communicators and policy makers can effectively respond to and engage with distrust towards science and misinformation on issues beyond COVID-19 – such as climate change, for which another “crisis of expertise” has already been feared (see Hulme et al., 2020).


Have you seen?
Trust in science – factor in culture and belief
Social media and trust in science – “it’s complicated”
What makes science trustworthy? A guide for the public




Agley, J. et al. (2021) “Intervening on trust in science to reduce belief in COVID-19 misinformation and increase COVID-19 preventive behavioral intentions: Randomized controlled trial,” Journal of Medical Internet Research 23(10). Available at:


Boulianne, S. and Humprecht, E. (2023) “Perceived Exposure to Misinformation and Trust in Institutions in Four Countries Before and During a Pandemic,” International Journal of Communication, 17, pp. 2024–2047. Available at: 


Brennen, J.S., Simon, F.M. and Nielsen, R.K. (2021) “Beyond (Mis)Representation: Visuals in COVID-19 Misinformation,” The International Journal of Press/Politics, 26(1), pp. 277–299. Available at: 


Bromme, R. et al. (2022) “An anchor in troubled times: Trust in science before and within the COVID-19 pandemic,” PLOS ONE, 17(2). Available at: 


Chen, Y. et al. (2023) “Anti-intellectualism amid the COVID-19 pandemic: The discursive elements and sources of anti-Fauci Tweets,” Public Understanding of Science [Online First]. Available at: 


Cockerell, I. (2020) How Brexit's biggest booster embraced anti-science populism, Coda Story. Available at: (Accessed: March 7, 2023). 


Dutilh Novaes, C. and Ivani, S. (2023) The Inflated Promise of Science Education, Boston Review. Available at: (Accessed: March 7, 2023). 


Ecker, U.K. et al. (2022) “The psychological drivers of misinformation belief and its resistance to correction,” Nature Reviews Psychology, 1(1), pp. 13–29. Available at: 


Freiling, I., Krause, N.M. and Schaufele, D.A. (2023) “Science and ethics of ‘curing’ misinformation,” AMA Journal of Ethics, 25(3). Available at: 


Hasen, R.L. (2022) How to Keep the Rising Tide of Fake News From Drowning Our Democracy, The New York Times. The New York Times. Available at: (Accessed: March 7, 2023). 


Hulme, M. et al. (2020) “Social scientific knowledge in times of crisis: What climate change can learn from coronavirus (and vice versa),” WIREs Climate Change, 11(4). Available at: 


Mede, N.G. (2022) “Science communication in the face of skepticism, populism, and ignorance: What ‘don’t look up’ tells us about science denial — and what it doesn’t,” Journal of Science Communication, 21(05). Available at: 


Mede, N.G. and Schäfer, M.S. (2021) “Science-related populism declining during the COVID-19 pandemic: A panel survey of the Swiss population before and after the coronavirus outbreak,” Public Understanding of Science, 31(2), pp. 211–222. Available at: 


Merkley, E. and Loewen, P.J. (2021) “Anti-intellectualism and the mass public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” 5(6), pp. 706–715. Available at: 


Metcalfe, J. et al. (2020) “The COVID-19 mirror: reflecting science-society relationships across 11 countries,” Journal of Science Communication, 19(07). Available at: 


Monbiot, G. (2020) Coronavirus shows us it's time to rethink everything. let's start with education, The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Available at: (Accessed: March 7, 2023). 


OECD (2020) Providing science advice to policy makers during COVID-19, OECD. Available at: (Accessed: March 7, 2023). 


Schäfer, M.S. and Metag, J. (2021) “Audiences of science communication between pluralisation, fragmentation and polarisation,” Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, pp. 291–304. Available at: 


Scheufele, D.A. (2022) “Thirty Years of Science–Society interfaces: What’s next?,” Public Understanding of Science, 31(3), pp. 297–304. Available at: 


Scheufele, D.A., Krause, N.M. and Freiling, I. (2021) “Misinformed about the ‘infodemic?’ science’s ongoing struggle with misinformation,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 10(4), pp. 522–526. Available at: 


Simon, F.M. and Camargo, C.Q. (2021) “Autopsy of a metaphor: The origins, use and blind spots of the ‘infodemic’”, New Media & Society. Available at:


van der Linden, S. (2022) “Misinformation: Susceptibility, spread, and interventions to immunize the public,” Nature Medicine, 28(3), pp. 460–467. Available at: 


Whitehead, H.S. et al. (2023) “A systematic review of communication interventions for countering vaccine misinformation,” Vaccine, 41(5), pp. 1018–1034. Available at: 


WHO (2021) WHO public health research agenda for managing infodemics, World Health Organization. Available at: (Accessed: March 7, 2023). 


Williams, G. (2020) The big lesson from coronavirus? We need to listen to the experts, WIRED UK. Available at: (Accessed: March 14, 2023). 


Guilhot, N. (2021) “It’s the politics, dummy. The corruption of science and expertise,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 68(7). Available at: (Accessed: March 15, 2023).


Womersley, J. (2022) We've forgotten how to communicate science to the public at a crucial time. Times Higher Education. Available at: (Accessed: March 7, 2023). 




Niels Mede is a communication researcher and works as a Senior Research and Teaching Associate at the Department of Communication and Media Research (IKMZ), University of Zurich, Switzerland. His research centers on science communication, digital media, public opinion about science, populism and science skepticism, as well as survey methodology.


The facts, ideas and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO or any of its partners and stakeholders and do not commit nor imply any responsibility thereof. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this piece do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.