Jargon Gone Wrong: How not to scare off the public when talking about science

Written by: Gerald Lois Roldan

Illustrated by: Aki Banguis

Philippines confirms first case of new coronavirus.

This was the headline from ABS-CBN News’ bulletin for January 30, 2020 which signaled this seemingly endless charade of our pandemic situation. As much as one knows a virus brings diseases, the corona prefix seems new. Is it fancy? Is it the king of viruses? Someone predisposed to a bit of microbiology might have a gist of it but for the general public whose scientific gateway relies on social media and news reports, it might be unfamiliar. Technical terms subscribe to the aim of science on accurate and specific information. When this is the case, when can jargon actually go wrong?

Two years into the pandemic, people still find themselves perplexed by the handful of scientific terms that are seen in social media and news reports. From the panic of the omicron variant to the copper mask dilemma, these convenient and accessible platforms seem to be breeding grounds of misinformation and mass hysteria. One may argue that this is another form of fake news and it is a whole different story. However, the elephant in the room says that the academy and the public are not meeting at the same level, or might I say language. There is a clear gap in scientific communication and it is essential to bridge it to push forward science and society.

To take a few steps back, the most basic scientific information people hear in the news is the weather bulletin. Students and workers watch out for the news to know whether it will rain, classes will be suspended, or they would have to whip out their raincoats and boots. In times of disaster, the news reports and social media updates become a necessity. However, instead of seeing easily digestible alerts, social updates by the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAG-ASA) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) includes a long thread of meteorological observations with gustiness, Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), and precipitation measures with units that doesn’t seem right. There might be attempts to effectively communicate this with icons and legends but the public can only comprehend the Tropical Cyclone Warning Signal Numbers and would ask how it is sunny when TCWS #3 are raised in their area.  

On a global scale, weather reporting has been revolutionized with digital and hologram technology. The country’s top networks such as GMA and ABS-CBN have been attempting to do this as well with promising results as it helped in visualizing the actual hazards and risks that the meteorological jargon of PAG-ASA aims to pass on to the public. After all, history has proven that showing people what would happen will impact them more than telling them only. 

Circling back to the opener, the pandemic has also revealed this gap in scientific communication. When cases started to tally globally, the Philippines was still scrambling to understand what the virus is as it jumped from one to another. From NCOV to SARS-COV2 to COVID-19, it was arduous to actually understand what was happening during the early months of the pandemic while panicking to prepare for the indefinite lockdowns. 

The first dart in the eye of the pandemic was how the quarantine restrictions were very unclear not only to the public but to the government themselves. It was as if they were designed by Apple with quite similar features and little adjustments named with slightly different terms. These community quarantines were described to be either strict, enhanced, or general which can even be modified creating more variants of the quarantines – frankly keeping up with the number of COVID-19 variants. 

The gap just kept going further and further when face masks and face shields became a hot topic for debate. With the impositions of using surgical masks when going out during the early months of the pandemic, various forms of face masks from K-95 to copper masks which have been both advertised and debunked in social media by various groups. On top of this, face masks and face shields have been attacked as just business-driven impositions and certain people refuse to wear them. Still, several attempts to visualize the necessity of wearing them have been done such as social distancing which penetrated the contemporary norms and became mimetic in nature. The science is there, but it is unsure and quite superficial.

A year into the pandemic, vaccines had started becoming available and mass vaccination  in place, yet pre-vaccination surveys registered high apprehensions regarding the vaccine. Several medical professionals have voiced out their thoughts on vaccination even in social media encouraging people to get them. However, the public became quite apprehensive due to the origin of the first vaccine, Sinovac, the remnants of the Dengvaxia hysteria, and the reported side effects of the vaccines. Still, the Philippines achieved its target vaccination rate at 77.8% by the end of June 2022. It might imply vaccine information successfully disseminated but it is the rather compliance for the economy to be revived by its people. Several establishments required vaccinations to be employed and avail services from the premises. The jargon scared the people from getting the vaccine yet hunger scared them back to get it. Herd immunity is coming but scientific communication is still subpar. 

On both disaster and pandemic mitigation, it is on the academic and government agencies’ responsibility to gather and deliver the information the public needs. However, the public must be ready to receive this information and that’s not the case for quite a while. The 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report of the Philippines recapitulates this as 15-year-old students fall behind other Southeast Asian countries in scientific literacy lacking in competencies of explaining phenomena scientifically, designing inquiry, and interpreting data. During the pandemic, this is even more amplified with distance learning becoming the norm and unchecked learning materials letting erroneous information be accessed by students. DOST’s framework for science education includes inquiry skills, scientific attitudes, and content and connections which could actually create a generally scientific public yet the current curriculum has not been producing such. In fact, science-related programs and career tracks have been motivated by employment while research, development, and communication have been less integrated. As in baseball, no matter how great the pitcher is, the catcher must be good as well. Otherwise, the game is not good. 

In a sense, science is a social endeavor and it needs the collaboration of the academy and the public. Both sectors of society must meet at the same level and effectively communicate in an effort to bridge the gap present due to unprogressive education and highly technical correspondence to the public. Science can only do so much in the walls of the laboratory and must be brought to the streets and the people that actually need it. One way or another, the public needs to be involved in the science that occurs no matter how daunting the jargon may be. Communicate, in English please – no jargon.

References

ABS-CBN News. 2020 Jan 30. Philippines confirms first case of new coronavirus. ABS-CBN News. [accessed 2022 Nov 16]. https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/01/30/20/philippines-confirms-first-case-of-new-coronavirus.

Interaksyon. 2020 Dec 17. Face shields mandated in Philippines: Do they really protect vs SARS-CoV-2? Interaksyon. [accessed 2022 Nov 25]. https://interaksyon.philstar.com/trends-spotlights/2020/12/18/182231/face-shields-studies-science-philippines-coronavirus/.

Magsambol B. 2021 Mar 26. Pulse Asia: 6 in 10 Filipinos don’t want to get vaccinated against COVID-19. RAPPLER. [accessed 2022 Nov 25]. https://www.rappler.com/nation/filipinos-vaccination-against-coronavirus-pulse-asia-survey-march-2021/.

‌‌Mercado NA. 2021 Jun. DepEd finds 155 errors in learning materials from Oct. 2020 to June 2021. INQUIRERnet. [accessed 2022 Nov 25]. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1445795/deped-finds-155-errors-in-learning-materials-from-oct-2020-to-june-2021.

‌‌Program for International Student Assessment. 2018. PISA 2018: National Report of the Philippines. Department of Education. [accessed 2022 Nov 16]. https://www.deped.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/PISA-2018-Philippine-National-Report.pdf

San Juan R. 2019 Dec 4. DepEd welcomes PISA results, recognizes “gaps” in education quality. Philstarcom. [accessed 2022 Nov 16]. https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2019/12/04/1974229/deped-welcomes-pisa-results-recognizes-gaps-education-quality.

‌World Bank Group. 2022 Oct 11. Delivering COVID-19 Vaccines to the Last Mile in the Philippines. World Bank. [accessed 2022 Nov 16]. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2022/10/10/delivering-covid-19-vaccines-to-the-last-mile-in-the-philippines#:~:text=The%20Philippine%20Department%20of%20Health,the%20end%20of%20June%202022..

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