We’re Talking Past Each Other On Things That Really Matter

Scientific discussions are going up against cultural debates, and people can’t tell the difference between the two.

I was having a discussion on social media with a friend the other day, when one of their friends decided to jump in and post their comments. My friend and I are epidemiologists. They hold a master’s degree in public health with a specialization in epidemiology. I have the same degree plus a doctoral degree in public health, also in epidemiology. Between us, we have almost 30 years of public health practice experience. Their friend? He’s a car mechanic.

No, I’m Not Being Elitist

Now, if you think that I’m going to be an elitist and say that the third person in the discussion doesn’t know anything because they’re a car mechanic, you’re wrong. My father is a car mechanic, and he helped me get on the path to loving science and thinking critically about the world around me. He knows a lot about physics and how things work. I inherited his sense of wonder when it comes to complicated machinery, complicated systems. As we’ve learned in this pandemic — though I knew this before — public health is one hell of a complicated system.

If my friend and I were discussing the intricacies of the rack-and-pinion mechanism for steering, then the intrusion by my friend’s friend would have been welcomed. But the friend came in firing from the hip with accusations that public health interventions were killing his business and, by extension, people like him. He called it a sort of “holocaust” of the working class. What made the conversation more unproductive was the inclusion of political sentiment and accusations that then candidate Biden would finish killing the working class by opening the border to undocumented workers. Essentially, the discussion went from scientific to policy/political very fast. Then the discussion went nowhere.

Should Non-Experts Debate Experts? Yes!

After that exchange, I was left wondering if there is room for non-experts in a discussion on how to best address the issues brought on by COVID-19 and other diseases and conditions. In my opinion, the answer is a resounding “YES!” There has to be room for non-experts in such discussions because many of the people who would be affected by scientific/medical interventions would be affected. Including them is the ethical thing to do. It is the just thing to do.

As it happened in the discussion with my friend and their friend, the downside to this is that you may end up with people yelling past each other instead of having a meaningful conversation. And, as we have learned in the last few years — especially during the recent presidential campaign season — conversations get derailed when personal feelings and beliefs get involved. This is worse if there is no authority figure or moderator/facilitator keeping tabs on the discussion. (The worse soccer games I’ve played, in terms of injuries and lack of fun, have been those without referees.)

We Must Do Better

I think we are falling short on the discussions that need to be had about all the things we need to do to end this pandemic and prevent the next ones. Social media doesn’t allow for a moderator to step in and keep us in line, keep us focused on reaching a consensus on what to do. We expect our elected officials to do that, to deliberate and exhibit wisdom in their discussions, but they too have fallen prey to finger-pointing and name-calling. Adjectives like “draconian” and “tyrannical” are being used to describe science and evidence-based interventions. “Foolish” and “irresponsible” is what we call those who don’t follow public health guidance to a tee. When either side does this, or a third side chimes in with equally offensive language, the conversation goes nowhere.

For everyone to benefit from the free and full exchange of ideas, then everyone needs to be included in the discussion. This is why bigoted ideas are generally repulsive. Bigoted ideas exclude groups of people by their very nature. Full inclusion, with reasonable and civil discourse benefits all of us, especially when having to deal with such a universal threat like COVID-19 turned out to be. Can you imagine if small business owners were given more of a voice when it came to the shutdowns? Or if the Trump Administration didn’t shut down its scientists at CDC and other health agencies? I bet you that public health interventions against COVID would have been better received.

We Will Do Better

Listen, I’m going to try to do my part to improve the conversation and stay away from just ignoring others because public health requires that of me as an epidemiologist, and — let’s face it — it’s just better to be mature and have mature conversations. I hope others who are my colleagues, and those who are not, join me in improving our discussion about public health. This is not going to be our last pandemic, and we need to have a plan for the next one. If that plan is borne of an honest conversation between all the parties involved, it will be even better.

René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH, is a doctor of public health, an epidemiologist, amateur photographer, running/cycling/swimming enthusiast, father, and “all-around great guy.” You can find him working as an epidemiologist a local health department in Virginia, grabbing tacos at your local taquería, or on the campus of the best school of public health in the world where he is an associate in the Epidemiology department. All the opinions in this blog post are those of Dr. Najera and do not necessarily represent those of his employers, friends, family, or acquaintances.

Doctor of Public Health in Epidemiology. Associate at JHSPH. Adjunct at George Mason Univ. Epidemiologist at a large County Health Department. Father. Husband.

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