I’ll confess there are days when I wish media training for CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky (among many other public health experts) would turn the tide, get us out of this pandemic mess. When I wish that simple honesty would win the day. But, because I’m a sociolinguist who has studied and taught public understanding of health and science for four decades and spent untold light years tweaking public health messages, I’m not inclined to magical thinking.
I default to a far more fundamental and addressable problem. The fact that health experts know and trust “the science” (even when the path is pothole filled), while the public understands far less science and is hardly ever in the room where it happens. This chasm has enormous consequences for personal and community health, policy, politics economics and civil society.
• One critical part would be to advance the public’s understanding and engagement with all aspects of health by not exclusively privileging “scientific evidence” because so many millions don’t fully understand that science. We must recast the pandemic (because that’s what’s on the table right now) in terms of contextualized science - science in the context of people’s lives and realities.• Frame public health guidance by simultaneously talking about the “science” and the social science. If we know that masks would cut down on transmission--say that--while also explaining the shortage and proposing acceptable alternatives. What is the government going to do about the problem?• Discuss the mission of public health – the difference between focusing on “flattening the curve” vs. teaching people how to protect themselves.• Acknowledge without judgment that the science and health literacy of the public needs improving and commit to teaching not just “disseminating” health information through policy and endless, changing guidance.• Introduce the public to basic public health and science concepts. Develop ways to build a knowledge base and shared vocabulary to get from viruses and spike proteins, to social spread and the greater good.