How researchers get heard

What is Your Biggest Story?

“If you are fully vaccinated you can start doing many things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

That should be the main message ofthe latest CDC guidelines on mitigating your risk of COVID-19 infection, out this week.

Instead, the CDC has buried the good news (and the very words of that main message) under a dog’s breakfast of key points, recommendations and caveats, capped with a bewildering, exhausting infographic that Trevor Noah makes brilliant fun of in this rant.

I heard a headline about these guidelines first, before seeing them — that “fully vaccinated people were safe to dine outdoors with others without a mask.” Beautifully clear and liberating! My wife and I (fully vaccinated) proceeded to eat with two friends (also fully vaccinated) on a restaurant patio containing dozens of other diners, all strangers, few if any of us wearing masks. We felt giddy and surreal, as if we’d just been released from gravity.

Later, I looked more closely at the CDC guidelines and couldn’t tell — even after close study of the 14 different scenarios and three color-codings of risk levels and two different mask recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated, plus copious written instructions — whether I should believe the headline or not. (Read Zeynep for what the CDC should have said on outdoor transmission as well as the need to continue to mask indoors given the difficulties of proving and policing individual vaccination.)

It’s easy to lampoon the agency’s now-habitual bungling of comms. It’s harder to step back and see what’s driving it.

But if you communicate research and research-based expertise, you should be asking yourself: What cultural expectations does a chart like this fill? Because, although the chart is muddled, the aim of it doesn’t feel odd, at least to me. It doesn’t feel unnecessary. It feels, however poorly rendered, as if it’s trying to deliver information we now expect science to deliver.

My guess: The CDC is responding to the large and largely progressive chunk of us who now see science less as a guide to decision-making under various risk options and more as an antidote to risk, period.

Certainly, humans are really bad at calculating risk, so we could use the help. And ignoring science (e.g., climate change) often pushes us into trouble. But there is also a dominant narrative among liberals that science, as the leading edge of progress and rationality, will continue to derisk larger and larger arenas of human activity.

Within this context, the mantra of “listen to the science” has arisen. A weapon against misinformation, disinformation and policy foot-dragging, to be sure. But it’s also overframed the role of science vis-a-vis risk. “Listen to the science” casts science as a pathway to safety through the dark forest of risk rather than a guide to decision-making under various risk options. That’s magical thinking. It also alienates conservatives who might want that guidance but who are more comfortable with higher levels of individual risk and want to still be free to make their own decisions.

And the CDC’s focus on communicating gradations of risk for as many scenarios as it can reasonably fit on a chart (are we supposed to cut this out and carry it around?) obscures that main message of the vaccines: That they are absurdly good at protecting you from getting sick from this virus and passing it on to others.

In trying to meet the expectations of some of us for “risk-protective science,” the agency forgets to tell us the big news: Get vaccinated and you can have your life back.

Takeaway: When communicating research or research-based expertise, always think first about what your big news, your big story is. And how you’re going to make sure people won’t miss it.