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September–November 2021

Communication in a time of COVID

Science communication is facing one of its biggest challenges. As I write, New South Wales is in lockdown, and several other states are moving into or out of restrictions. In Japan, Olympic athletes have been competing in almost-empty stadiums.

Fragments of COVID-19 have been detected in wastewater in many regions, including the Northern Rivers region in New South Wales, which includes tourist hotspots such as Byron Bay. Health authorities are particularly concerned about detecting the virus in certain parts of that region because rates of childhood vaccination are low, vaccine-hesitancy and anti-vaccination sentiment have been historically high, and regional areas have limited health resources.

Understandably, the public have many questions about wastewater detections – why are there fragments in the water, are the fragments harmful and what do they tell us about when infectious people have been in a community? On page 19, Dave Sammut and Chantelle Craig discuss Water Research Australia’s sewage surveillance project, ColoSSoS, and the important work of the scientists who develop testing methods, and who test and analyse COVID fragments in wastewater.

People I know who are vaccine hesitant or opposed to the COVID vaccine no longer watch mainstream news – or any news – because they mistrust it or find it overwhelming. A vaccine-hesitant friend asked me if mRNA vaccines could affect DNA. Although I knew the answer, it was a challenge to explain this in an accessible way. I sent her a link to a Q&A explanation of the science, without any alarming pandemic context. I hope I was able to reassure my friend without bamboozling or alienating her, but it reminded me of how different people’s perspectives and understandings can be.

Earlier this year I moved from Victoria, where the communication about COVID at daily press conferences was largely comprehensive, clear, carefully worded and consistent, to New South Wales, where it can be repetitive, long-winded, often ambiguous and sometimes incomprehensible. Journalists here sometimes struggle to convey the press conference messages to an English-speaking readership, so I can only imagine the difficulties of trying to relay information in Auslan and/or to people with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Making things worse are those journalists who distort or misinterpret data (unintentionally or otherwise). Even scientifically literate people might need to brush up on terms such as efficacy, efficiency and relative risk (, and be alert to the context (such as disease severity and infectivity, subpopulations, type of vaccine and type of virus strain) and the statistics (identifying skewed data, or small or unrepresentative samples), and to plain old pseudoscience.

Professor Brian Oliver leads the Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis Group at the University of Technology Sydney and the Woolcock Institute. In a recent news release from the Australian Science Media Centre, he said that confusion relating to the Delta strain of COVID-19 is largely due to people associating data from one area with another context, using old data, misquoting other people or not understanding a data source (e.g. whether it was a clinical trial or a real-world population).

I have begun an online course developed by American graphics guru Edward Tufte about analysing and presenting information. In the presentation and the five books that accompany it, Tufte is quick to make the point that, just like language, graphics can be abused, through intention or ignorance.

In his book Visual explanations, Tufte describes the ‘cognitive paradise of explanation, a sparkling and exuberant world, intensely relevant to the design of information’. This is clearly Tufte’s true love, and he has transformed thinking about graphic presentation in many organisations, with clients having included IBM, Bose and NASA.

Phill Jones writes in The Scholarly Kitchen blog about the effects of a ‘mangled press conference on COVID’ in the UK, stressing the need for ‘good data storytelling’ ( He gives an example of some particularly confusing PowerPoint slides as part of a government COVID briefing, saying the biggest crimes weren’t the poor layout or legibility, but ‘that nobody had taken the time to understand all the different sources of data and synthesize them into a coherent story’. He refers to Visual representations, where Tufte posits that the disastrous outcome of the 1986 Challenger launch may have been avoided if data relating to O-ring damage had been presented in graphic form and in context. (For more about this, see data visualisation designer Luuk van der Meer’s blog post at

There’s no denying that science communication can be difficult at the best of times. The COVID crisis underscores that we must continue to train scientists in public-facing roles in science communication, and to offer quality courses in science journalism.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics says that this year’s census will mine valuable data about the impacts of COVID in Australia. I wonder if the ABS has considered seeking out the masterful and magical talents of Tufte?

Sally Woollett

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