From day one, “experts” have miscommunicated almost everything about the pandemic. At first, this was to convey confidence in their ability (when they had little). Later, this resulted in a loss of trust and confidence in public health to the point many no longer pay any attention to them and no longer believe what they are saying – because they have a bad track record.
“Public communications” is a primary tool of propagandists – working to persuade the public to take some action. At 650 days into 15-days to flatten the curve, their strategies failed.
The linked column, below, has many examples. Over confidence and a failure to acknowledge uncertainty are key elements of disastrous public communication.
Consider this hypothetical example—and ask yourself why I can’t find many examples like this that aren’t hypothetical:
We don’t entirely know what we’re doing, we’re uncertain, we disagree among ourselves. We have made some mistakes, and we’re going to make more. We’ll keep changing our minds as we fight out our disagreements and take new evidence onboard. If you’re not sure we’re right about something, join the club: We’re not sure we’re right either. This is what it’s like to face an evolving pandemic caused by a new pathogen.
One overconfidence issue that particularly bothers me is attribution bias—particularly about surges. Every time the COVID situation gets better or worse, public health people “explain” why. Officials and experts rarely say—CIDRAP Director Michael Osterholm is a notable exception—that they don’t have a clue why something happened; that the virus does what the virus does; that we’re not steering this ship, we’re passengers.
These overconfident attributions aren’t science-based, but they’re not random. Often they seem to be based on what public health agencies and experts want the public to think and do. Bad news is attributed to not enough people doing what you asked them to do; good news is attributed to lots of people doing what you asked them to do.
Consider – if – from the beginning, the “experts” had openly acknowledged that they did not know or that there was much uncertainty in their assessment: this would have installed a degree of trust, the feeling they were trying to be honest.
As the author says, to regain trust public health must acknowledge past errors, and apologize. But he also notes that public health has a long history of refusing to acknowledge errors and to apologize for mistakes.
Can credibility ever be restored? Since March of 2020, thinking this event would be historic, I began taking notes. Thousands of notes. Thousands of saved social media posts, trend charts, hundreds of research papers and news articles. By late 2020 public health had lost the narrative – things they asked us to do literally had no impact on the spread of the diseases. Their public dissemination of daily data reports were filled with errors (definitely in my state). A consequence of frequent errors in judgement, policy and data reporting is the public no longer trust public health. To answer the question, can credibility be restored? No, not as long as the same people are in charge, not while they refuse to acknowledge enormous mistakes and not while they continue to have unilateral power and refuse to take input from the public (which is required for all other government actions in a democracy). I do not see myself trusting public health during the remainder of my life – which is likely to be a few decades yet.
Author Peter Sandman, PhD, is a noted expert on public communications.