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Communicating science accurately can be a risky business, as the messaging on COVID-19 can attest.
The pandemic has shown that complex challenges require more than rigorous, effective solutions. Such challenges require a public buy-in to implement the solutions. But the public won’t buy in if they are suspicious of the message delivered.
Public suspicion arises with the admixture of politics with science.
In a recent interview, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers expressed the public’s reason for suspicion well when he noted: “If science can’t be questioned … it’s propaganda.”
Good news, Aaron, science can be questioned; it’s politics that oftentimes can’t. And, you are on to something already known in the practice of science. When you mix politics with science, you just get politics.
This was the lament of the head of the EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, in the Nov. 26, 2021, issue of Science. Although, right now, Dr. Daszak is facing scrutiny concerning his role in the yet unknown origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It seems that politics is holding up a rigorous search for the source of the COVID-19 event that killed millions, devastated major economies and dramatically altered lifestyles across the globe.
Political science has not discovered the origin of the pandemic. Still, it sure has produced bad side effects as observed in a November 2021 feature titled “The New World of Pandemic Politics” by Gerald F. Seib, executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal. “In a time of skepticism and cynicism about public institutions … the pandemic has eroded some of the remaining residue of trust among many Americans toward society’s institutions. Much like schools, public-health fixtures that once appeared to be above the fray — including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and local and state health officers — have been dragged into its swirl or, in some cases, have jumped into it.”
Suppose public-health institutions — expected to be objective and free from politics — are steered by politics or even perceived as politically directed. In that case, the public has a right to be suspicious and hesitant to follow official mandates. Under these circumstances, initiating convincing communication is more problematic, if not practically impossible.
Of course, politics is not the only challenge facing scientists and science communicators. Conflicting and changing recommendations from scientists and health experts can both erode people’s trust and reduce the effectiveness of safety advice. In the case of COVID-19, initial federal government recommendations against wearing surgical masks in public appeared to conflict with some recommendations made by the World Health Organization, practices in other countries and the results of previous flu protection studies published by the CDC.
Coupled with the government’s claim that healthy citizens do not need masks in public was the request to not purchase masks because of the severe shortage for health care workers, another seeming contradiction. Months after the initial advice was given, federal authorities reversed their recommendations on wearing masks in public.
The reversal was not necessarily unusual. In practice, science changes as new information are gleaned from circumstances in the world around us. But does the public know this? They would if the government is more transparent with what it knows, how it acts on what it knows and how it plans to change as what it knows becomes more informed with more data.
Yet health officials seem to be broadcasting a more condescending attitude toward the public they supposedly serve.
Condescension and politics will continue to kill public confidence, crushing an opportunity to see the full benefit of science to society.
• Anthony J. Sadar, a Certified Consulting Meteorologist, is an adjunct associate professor at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pa., and co-author of “Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry,” 2nd Edition (CRC Press, 2021).
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