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Alan Alda On The Importance Of Empathy During The COVID-19 Pandemic


At a moment when over 700 people are dying every day in the United States of COVID-19 and infections continue to spread, a new poll shows that trust in public health officials is dropping precipitously here. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that public confidence in the Centers for Disease Control has dipped 16 points. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health's top infectious disease expert, has seen his numbers dip by 10%. And large numbers of the public also hold dangerous misconceptions, for instance. Twenty percent of Americans believe wearing a mask is harmful to their health.

In short, Americans are confused and mistrustful of the people who are supposed to get us out of this health crisis. And some of this can be blamed on the mixed messaging we've been hearing. We're joined now by Alan Alda, who has dedicated a big part of his life to changing the way science is communicated to the public.


ALAN ALDA: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people may not know this, but you are very seriously invested in making sure the public gets clear messaging on issues that involve science. You even have a center at Stony Brook University dedicated to this. Clearly, there have been some communication failures here in this pandemic. Give me a top line. What is the main thing that has gone wrong in the communication, in your view, so far?

ALDA: The thing that worries me the most is that we seem to have a lowering of our compassion for one another - not - but not so much compassion as empathy. And the way I think of empathy is not as compassion. Compassion is feeling sorry for somebody, to some extent, but empathy is getting a reading as well as you can of what they're going through, what they may be suffering from. And that's important to think about them as clearly as you think about yourself and protecting them. But I think this pandemic is a real test of our empathy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There have been confusing messages, though, coming in terms of the science, certainly from the president. But I'd like to focus on how scientists and public health experts have also said some contradictory things. You know, Dr. Anthony Fauci himself initially said, don't wear a mask. Now we understand that was because they wanted PPE for health workers. When a mistake like that is made, what should happen, do you think, in terms of communicating science clearly to the public?

ALDA: You know, it's not always a mistake when science says one thing and then sometime later says another thing. One of the problems in communicating about science, I think I've found, is that people aren't comfortable with one of the basic elements of science, which is that no one study solves everything for all time. It's a march toward a greater understanding of reality. Isaac Newton saw gravity one way. Einstein saw it another - doesn't mean one of them is wrong. It just means that considering certain aspects of the whole picture, you get a different conclusion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. And so many studies are happening right now during this pandemic, and we're constantly learning new things. But data can be confusing and contradictory, as you note. How do you tell the public clearly what they should be doing when the guidance changes?

ALDA: I think it's a good idea to keep them up to date on what we now believe we know to be true through rigorous studies. At the same time, I think it's a good idea to constantly remind people that this is what we know for now, and it's liable to change. It avoids the confusion that's borne of the fact that people don't spend - most people don't spend their lives studying science the way scientists do, and they're not used to the process - doesn't make them less smart. They've spent their lives doing other things that are important to do. But they may not be familiar enough with the idea that the view of nature changes as science moves on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In an article in Scientific American, Meeta Shah, who is an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, wrote about the messaging failures, as she put it, by health officials and scientists. It opened with this line. Quote, "It seems science has lost and politics has won in the battle against COVID-19 here in the United States." Do you think that's true?

ALDA: No, I don't think the battle is lost. We're smart enough and good enough at heart to help one another out. We're all neighbors. Contempt, I don't think, ever won an argument, but it can start a fight. And the last thing we need to do when our lives are at stake is to start fighting with each other. Now wearing a mask is a mark of division. It's hard because we have reached a point in our understanding of science where, for too many people, science is just another opinion. Rather, it's some of our best brains working on problems that are a question of life and death for all of us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Alan Alda, whose Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University trains scientists and doctors in how to explain science to the public. He also has a podcast, "Clear+Vivid With Alan Alda."

Thank you very much.

ALDA: Thank you, Lulu. It was fun talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.