How Public Health Officials Can Make The Truth Heard In A 'Post-Fact' World

They're conducting some critical research. But a lot of people aren't listening to what they find.
DOUGLAS MAGNO via Getty Images

As reports of fake news ― real or perceived ― and “alternative facts” become more common, so does Americans’ distrust in public officials and institutions.

Respondents to an Edelman survey conducted last year, for example, said they would consider the view of a “person like me” twice as credible as that of a government leader. The public’s trust in businesses, the government, nongovernmental organizations and the media have all declined, the survey found.

Public health officials appear to be feeling the effects of this, with many saying it has become more difficult to get Americans to believe crucial data and research.

“Good policies are no longer enough because people no longer trust experts, or scientists, or government regulatory processes, let alone politicians or businesses,” Dr. Claire Hooker, a University of Sydney bioethicist who co-authored a new paper on the subject for the Sax Institute, told The Huffington Post.

Public health officials might be able to fight against this climate by also fighting against their instincts, suggests the report ― rather than focusing on shutting down false claims, experts should try to meet people where they are by demonstrating care and sensitivity to their concerns.

“Good policies are no longer enough because people no longer trust experts, or scientists, or government regulatory processes, let alone politicians or businesses.”

- Dr. Claire Hooker

The authors put forth a three-step approach to addressing a skeptical public: expressing care, focusing on action over words and strategically engaging with mainstream and local media.

Actions send strong messages because people want to know what’s being done to minimize risks, according to the paper’s authors. For instance, Australian officials suspended a seasonal flu vaccine program for children under the age of 5 when they observed a slightly elevated rate of convulsions potentially related to fevers.

And when it comes to the media, Hooker emphasized the importance of the “rule of threes” ― the idea that it’s most effective to communicate three pieces of information. She also suggested that public health officials try to reach the public via community-based social media.

What public health experts can learn from vaccine failures

The evidence on vaccines is clear: They are safe and do not cause autism. But the spread of misinformation about the shots ― for example, in the form of widespread protests and propaganda like the documentary “Vaxxed” ― has led to such disastrous results as the largest measles epidemic in 20 years.

Hooker and her colleagues say doctors could have addressed this by being clear about any areas of uncertainty and working to build trust with skeptical communities. Instead, medical professionals tended to simply repeat the message that vaccines are safe.

“What is not helpful is to try and change the mind of strong anti-vaccine advocates,” Hooker said. “It won’t work and it just upsets people. What we can do is listen carefully and respectfully to the concerns of parents and community members and address those concerns.”

Other experts warn that such a tactic may not be fruitful on its own because the beliefs of many science skeptics are simply impenetrable. Indeed, a 2014 study that investigated various strategies for communicating the safety and importance of vaccines found that none of the tactics worked.

But that doesn’t mean public health officials should throw in the towel. Instead, research highlights the urgent need for more research on effective communication.

“I don’t think our results imply that they shouldn’t communicate why vaccines are a good idea,” political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who co-led the 2014 research, told Mother Jones at the time. “But they do suggest that we should be more careful to test the messages that we use, and to question the intuition that countering misinformation is likely to be the most effective strategy.”

Ultimately, Hooker suggests, it’s about finding common ground whenever possible.

“In a post-truth world, our integrity is the most important asset that we have,” she said. “That means doing the best quality scientific studies even when threatened by people who don’t understand how science works. ... But mostly it means constantly putting aside our own outrage in order to find middle ground with people who are well-meaning but worried and uncertain.”

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