In movies about saving the world (except for Don’t Look Up), science traditionally plays a pivotal role:
- There’s a threat to humanity with a lot of unknowns;
- The scientist characters progress from uncertainty to knowledge about the threat; and
- Their growing knowledge increases everyone’s ability to respond to and finally neutralize the threat. (Sometimes.)
That narrative arc is a cliche. But it’s also how most people understand the role of science at a time of crisis. That understanding makes the narrative extremely useful when trying to get those people to act on science, especially when the science is eroding uncertainties quickly.
To execute the narrative, though, scientists have to start by foregrounding what they’re uncertain about. John Barry, author of the book “The Great Influenza” (about the 1918 flu pandemic), calls this “an infrastructure of uncertainty” and argues it is the foundation of effective public health communication because it establishes from the outset that you are telling the truth. “Explain from the beginning what you don’t know,” Barry told Politico’s Joanne Kenen. “Create an infrastructure of what you don’t know…Some will believe you. Some won’t. But people over time remember that you told them the truth.”
I thought of Barry’s maxim as I read this New York Times’ story about CDC director Rochelle Walensky’s “steep learning curve on messaging” her policy decisions throughout the pandemic. The Times’ story is typical DC — an inexperienced and relatively unconnected agency director (Walensky) doesn’t build consensus, blindsides too many peers and, after becoming a political liability, now gets hung out to dry anonymously by those same peers.
But the failure to “message the science” during the pandemic hasn’t been one of interagency alignment. It hasn’t even been one of messaging per se, if by “messaging” we’re to understand translating what the latest science says. The real story is the failure by public health in general to create an infrastructure of uncertainty, to set the overall narrative of scientifically moving from uncertainty to knowledge that a public suddenly finding itself living inside a horror movie could follow, root for and understand. Without that narrative, the CDC’s pronouncements don’t just seem arbitrary — they’re illegible.
Effective public expertise isn’t about discovering something new. It’s about removing something old — a crucial bit of uncertainty. And the plot requires you to have established that uncertainty early on, preferably in the opening scene.