Precision at the Expense of Impact Doesn’t Help Decision Makers

In these COVID times, data is invaluable.  Learning how to communicate what we do know – based on data so far – can help give assurance and inform decision making.

Here’s timely and sage advice from Dr. Paul Glimcher. He is a neuroscientist, psychologist, and economist who serves as the Director at New York University’s Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Decision Making. On a webinar sponsored by Quartz on the science of decision making, he answered my question. 

Lead with Data, Not Doubt

I asked: What advice do you have for how scientists should communicate information to decision makers? 

Paul Glimcher  “The first rule is: keep it simple. I think that the problem is that the standard of proof and the mechanisms of communications that are familiar to scientists are extremely cautious and extremely risk averse, particularly around stating best practices. The result is that scientists often shoot themselves in the foot.

“I think the classic example of this is climate science. For the first 30 or 40 years of climate science, scientists very carefully said ‘we don’t know that anthropogenic carbon is the cause of global warming for sure’. And if you asked what’s the likelihood that that’s true, it’s only probably about 98% likely. So, what I think the public hears is: ‘we don’t know’.

“This is a problem because ‘know’ for scientists means 100% sure. What’s the best plan for me to make as a corporate leader may not mean that I have to know something to 100% certainty. I may only need to know it to 80% certainty. I would really urge scientists to say ‘we are 90% sure of X” for example.

“We ran into this with COVID when we were discussing masks early on. The CDC and World Health Organization basically had a very complicated message about masks early on. They said that you shouldn’t wear masks and the reason to say that was because there weren’t enough masks in the world for regular people to wear them. Then the WHO actually did say during that period, unless you have a sick person in your house, in which case you should absolutely wear a mask at all times.

“This is a classically confusing message. We now know from pretty clear data in the New England Journal that if a sick person is wearing a mask in the workplace, they reduce the risk that anyone else will get the disease in the workplace by a factor of 6 to 1. That’s a huge effect. So now if someone says if wearing masks in the workplace is certain to keep everyone safe, the scientist says no absolutely not, it’s only a 6 to 1 improvement. I think scientists have to be quick to lead with it’s a 6 to 1 improvement, not with ‘I’m not certain, I don’t know, we don’t know what the answer is’.

“My general answer to the question is scientists have got to be really careful and remember that when they’re not talking to other scientists, non-scientists are looking for the best advice you can give them with as much clarity and simplicity as you can possibly put into it and they do not want to hear all your doubts around that last 2%. That is not serving the people you’re talking to very efficiently.”

The Peril of Precision

I see this issue often.  Scientists are taught to be precise.  Yet when it comes to communicating, the exacting nature of this mandate often gets in the way.  It causes confusion.  It muddies the decision making process.  Yes, science is an ongoing process of discovery.  So it is hard to be definitive. Can a scientist ever definitively know?  Maybe not.

However, scientists need to be clear about what they do know.  They need to be more succinct when they provide information to help decision makers choose a course of action. They don’t need to predict the outcome. They can add tremendous value by informing the direction to take, especially during uncertain times like these.

Want to improve the way you communicate your science to non-expert decision makers?  Check out How to Bridge Communication Gaps.