Tell us about yourself.
I’m an epidemiologist and current microbiology PhD candidate at Colorado State University. I’m from Indiana originally, and my family is located there as well as Florida, Ohio, and Illinois. I am the only scientist in my family, and the only one to pursue a PhD.
What did you do?
Together, my family and I watched a COVID-19 conspiracy video. We then walked through the film’s primary arguments and discussed them one-on-one, addressing each other’s individual questions along the way.
In early spring of 2020, I received an unexpected text from a family member: “Have you seen this? What do you think?” Included was a link to Judy Mikovits’ film “Plandemic.” For those who haven’t seen it, Mikovits’ video discusses how COVID-19 was a purposely engineered virus, how Mikovits’ research proved that vaccines weakened immune systems, and how Dr. Anthony Fauci buried that research to financially benefit from the pandemic. The video also claimed masks, handwashing, and sanitizer facilitate viral infection. My family’s question was, “Is this information accurate?” My response was to launch a series of discussions with them that addressed the pandemic honestly.
Science communication has always been a passion of mine, but it is always difficult. It can actually be more challenging and stressful when done with those you love. If you misspeak or are flippant with your language, the consequences could negatively influence your peers’ and relatives’ actions, or result in broken relationships and personal trust.
To have a productive and open conversation with my own family, I relied on numerous tactics. The key was using plenty of anecdotes, analogies, and stories to explain science rather than reciting facts. I appealed to my family’s value and belief systems when giving health recommendations, which made the science more appealing and approachable. Instead of lording my education over family, I instead treated their opinions and questions with respect. Honesty was another effective tool. Openly discussing the current missteps and uncertainty within the COVID-19 science community was essential for open communication and further trust building. In doing so, my family knew I wasn’t partisan.
What did you get out of this experience?
My family conversations showed me that expertise is in the eye of the beholder. To be clear, I am not a virologist, a vaccine developer, or a COVID-19 researcher. So, if someone were to ask me to find a COVID-19 expert, I certainly wouldn’t pick myself. But, when compared to the general public, I am seen as an expert. Even more importantly, I am approachable. Although I am no Fauci, my family knows me and therefore will likely trust me over a stranger. As such, I have more power, and responsibility, to advocate for science than I previously thought.
I also learned that the rewards of discussing COVID-19 with my family were high. Granted, we often disagree and have very different political views. But, by communicating science with empathy, we were able to have honest conversations that brought us closer together. Our “Plandemic” discussion, and the many that followed, gave me the opportunity to see the pandemic through a non-scientist’s perspective. It also convinced my family to get the vaccine when it was available, refrain from attending mass gatherings, and continue to wear a mask in public. There is no greater reward than that.