Photo by Dennis Maliepaard on Unsplash

We must be the change we want in the world

Imagining what might have been could burn a hole in my gut, but venting my exasperation by bending the truth won’t help. The truth matters.

Imagining what might have been — had we acted on Feb 5, 2020 — could burn a hole in my gut. I’m grieving the lives we lived before COVID-19, before our homebound, anxiety-riddled isolation.

None of that justifies bending the truth.

Integrity demands I defend the truth whether I like it, whether it benefits me, or it’s ugly. I must recognize it whether it favors conservatives, liberals, both, or neither.

It seems somewhat dishonest to say the President recommended people inject themselves with disinfectant. Could someone have gotten that from what he said? Some did and speculating publicly during a crisis is inadvisable.

Risk communication is an entire field of study.

Specifically, thinking aloud about a critical issue troubles me. The tendency to believe the first message we hear is one of four ways people process crises.

CERC: Psychology of a Crisis

The recognized manual for crisis communication states: “Avoid one-liners, clichés, and off-the-cuff comments.”

It may damage your credibility or unintentionally misrepresent your message.

Communicating in a crisis is different. In a serious crisis, all affected people take in information differently, process information differently and act on information differently (Reynolds, 2002). As a leader, you need to know that the way you normally communicate with your community may not be effective during and after it suffers a crisis. — CERC, by Leaders for Leaders

Trump is not a scientist, and neither are most Americans.

When we say let the doctors or researchers do the talking, I worry how that sounds to people who don’t study science. People may not realize the reason we say this is that political figures rarely study crisis management.

I fear it sends the average American the message that those outside of scientific study are not welcome, that we look down on them. It doesn’t have to be true for that to be a public impression.

Experts know as much as they do because they’ve spent so much time on a single subject. The expertise does not show they are inherently smarter than those that studied something else. We need to express that.

Any inaccurate portrayal can damage our credibility.

That’s risk communication 101: Be first. Be right. Be credible. If you’re not all three, especially right and credible, the situation may worsen in a hurry. We only hurt ourselves when we promote biased perspectives because others are less able to tell what is real.

If you’ve misled people before, you cannot expect people to believe you when you tell the truth. It might feel good to jeer at a half-truth, but the price is credibility. Resist the temptation.

Then, when scientists truthfully report that decision-makers dismissed their concerns, those who would rather not believe it, reject it. Frankly, I don’t blame them.

Missteps in this situation need no embellishment.

The following inaccuracies spread via social media:

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

Nothing should supersede upholding the truth.

If pretending to be right usurps our desire for the truth, our futures will be the collateral damage. The current political climate leaves no room for winners, and indeed, we are all losing.

Speaking more candidly, taking the high-road has grown increasingly difficult, offering less reward along the way. People who once respected objectivity now question fundamental principles.

It’s been a bizarre happenstance to be disregarded as biased, despite a willingness to criticize myself and officials in agreement with me, alike.

I’m the Oprah of criticism

There’s a reason science seems obsessed with evidence. Scoffing at new ideas used to be science’s time-honored tradition.

Poor scientists of old faced a lifetime of maddening head-desking and ridicule. Life was hard for visionary minds. Then, maybe five minutes before they died, the world would see their brilliance. Oops.

Ignaz Semmelweis realized that surges in childbed fever had been spreading on the hands of fellow medical doctors. He urged hand washing but only offended his colleagues.

The torment of knowing women were dying preventable deaths weighed on him. Eventually, his unwelcome revelation led his peers and wife to believe him insane and commit him to an asylum where he died.

“The Semmelweis effect is a reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.”

People make terrible decisions if they base them on gut feeling. This led to peer reviews where people submit works so that colleagues may tear it to shreds.

That is, if they are lucky. Recognizing errors and fixing them means the conclusions have more value.

It’s a struggle, not taking it personally.

It would be easy to retaliate by attacking a peer-reviewer, but the criticism isn’t personal. If mere suggestion threatens me, how secure could my position be?

If something is true, it welcomes scrutiny without fear.

Perhaps we know this and see the indefensibility of our positions, but we want them anyway. Dismissing criticism may feel like spitting in your opposition’s face, but it’s spitting into the wind.

Wipe the loogie from thine face, America; embrace your critics. The price of refusing to admit when we have erred will never be worth the chance for true growth. The COVID-19 crisis missteps exasperate me, yes, but nothing permits me to vent anger by misleading people. Am I concerned with the truth if I accept it only when it suits me?

If we want a different world, we have to be different.

Media outlets aren’t sputtering out this dichotomous drivel by accident. They make what we consume, so what do we want?

Truth is the only authentically bipartisan ally we have, and we can ill afford to spurn it. What the future holds will come down to a choice: ego — or truth.

Disclaimer: The views expressed reflect only me and do not represent any other persons or institution.

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