Knowledge is power: Why science and health literacy matters

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As a physician epidemiologist and former public health official, I’m constantly struck by the sheer amount of disinformation that spreads related to COVID-19. I’ll routinely encounter myths about how masks actually cause viral spread. Or I’ll be told that drinking alcohol or raw, unpasteurized milk combats the virus or that putting hot pepper in food wards off viral illnesses. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories about 5G networks and COVID still abound.

Some of this confusion is related to the mixed messaging seen in this pandemic. It also relates to levels of basic scientific knowledge and health literacy in the general population. One recent study that asked over 1500 U.S. adults to distinguish between true and false COVID headlines found that higher general scientific knowledge was associated with lower belief in false headlines. The authors also found that nudging people with accuracy reminders increased truth discernment. This suggests that simple tools can be put in place to reduce beliefs in false information.

But regardless of how information is communicated, who communicates it matters as well.  Trust in governmental public health guidance is at an all-time low, which means government messaging may make little difference in COVID vaccine uptake. Previous research suggests that health care providers can have a great influence when it comes to vaccination, but the current climate of distrust and misinformation makes the role of health care providers take on even greater importance. Educating health care professionals on communicating scientific information inaccessible, easily-digestible, and transparent ways should be an urgent priority as vaccines roll out. Because arming health care professionals with tools to effectively combat myths will be a key factor in improving vaccine uptake and ending this pandemic.

But we should also think beyond the current pandemic. In the long run, we need to gather lessons learned from COVID-19 and use them to educate our health professionals on communication methods that combat disinformation. And we need to consider improving the basic scientific literacy of the general population, starting with our school-age children. We should build up the public’s basic knowledge of how the immune system works and how germs spread to arm them with critical questions when confronting myths. Experts who seek to break cycles of poverty often suggest that topics like credit scores, investing for retirement, or banking be taught alongside math to improve students’ basic financial literacy.  Similarly, by high school graduation, every student should have a basic understanding of how their bodies work and the factors that contribute to their own health and the health of their community.

To create a truly literate population in the fundamentals of health, we need to teach more than just a biology class — we need a multidisciplinary approach to education that incorporates science, history, sociology, political science, and civics. Students need to understand the history of health — for instance, what happened during previous pandemics? They also need to grasp societal factors that affect health, such as poverty, housing, transportation, food access, discrimination, etc. They need to understand how government policies influence health and how their actions (e.g.,  smoking, distracted driving, or vaccinations) can impact both their own health and their community’s.

Why is all this important? As climate change accelerates and animals move to escape harsher environments, they will encounter species that they may not otherwise, and before long, we’ll see the emergence of more novel viruses. Meanwhile, worsening air pollution may impact our lungs’ abilities to stave off novel viruses, and chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes will impact our immune systems’ ability to fight them. We need a more scientifically literate population who can understand risks, ask the right questions if they hear mixed messages, separate fact from fiction, and comprehend their role in impacting others’ health. The next pandemic could be coming in less time than we think, but it doesn’t have to take the toll that this one has. A generation who understands the fundamentals of health and science could make all the difference.

Tista S. Ghosh is an internal medicine physician and epidemiologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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