Quote of the Day: Credibility and the Wolf


“A lot of the fear comes directly from the loss of trust in institutions. The press, WHO, the official authorities are no longer implicitly believed by everyone. This is the cost of deceit. When you finally tell the truth your cred is gone.” – Richard Fernandez

When I studied public health communications, it was stressed to never lie or deceive. Stick to what you know. Do not split hairs or use technical terms when less technical terms will do. Be clear and stay on the facts and your message. Once you cry wolf enough, no one will believe you when the actual wolf arrives. So many people have burned up their credibility, and now their precious expert status is useless. (I turn to Tom Nichols, who wrote The Death of Expertise, and contributes to said death every time he sends a tweet.)

If you desire further examples, the horrible communications of two Obama officials during crises made things worse. The CDC director during the Ebola outbreak kept on stating that Ebola was not known to be transmitted via the airborne route. That is true, technically, but it is likely transmitted via droplets (like a cough or sneeze). Airborne transmission is a technical term for extremely contagious agents that do not need a cough or sneeze to be transmitted. That obscured the truth. Similarly, the NRC chairman during Fukushima fed paranoia and used the crisis as a case for anti-nuclear activism. He was making claims that were unsupported by science and trying to maximize the disaster.

I try to guard my credibility when talking with people about the coronavirus. I know quite a bit more than the average bear on viruses and biosafety – I literally do it for a living – but I know there are people who know a lot more than me. Even my boss recommends sticking to official advice and tested guidelines. I try to balance skepticism and openness to new approaches.

I just wish more people in power would recognize how much they have devastated their credibility, and think before they cause more panic and mayhem.

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  1. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    This level of credibility loss applies outside of regulators.  The FBI has decades of reputation in tatters, Bill Kristol etc. are an embarssment, and I’m sure you can name more cases.

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    • #1
  2. DonG (skeptic) Coolidge
    DonG (skeptic)

    Good post.  I agree with everything except your comment about WHO.  I have not last faith in THE WHO.  As for the other institutions, I won’t get fooled again.

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  3. MichaelKennedy Inactive

    The CDC spent years obsessing about “gun violence” and neglected infectious diseases.  The FDA failed to monitor and enforce standards on Chinese pharmaceutical plants. The inspectors did not speak or read Chinese language and could not read records that were often falsified.  The FDA also inhibited the development of testing kits to monitor the epidemic.

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  4. Danny Alexander Member
    Danny Alexander

    Speaking of the CDC, did they ever get the green light from the ChiComs to send a team into Wuhan/Hubei?

    Media reports the other week claimed that although the regime in the PRC was ironing out the approval specifics, at least in principle the door was/is open for the CDC to investigate virus origins, contribute expertise to Chinese efforts to combat/contain the epidemic (based on clearer, ground-truth-derived understanding of the virus obtained via this proposed direct investigation), etc.

    Then…  No further updates on that front — at least so far as I’m aware.

    Has such a visit gotten underway already, albeit in a media blackout?  Or is it at least imminent, per an agreed and publicized schedule?

    Or — as I can’t help suspecting — has it been either resolutely shut down or given the endless-delays treatment by the PRC regime?

    Some core credibility at stake here — and not strictly that of PRC institutions only, for that matter:  If something has been going on with the coronavirus in China that the US government and the governments of its allies *should* be confronting the PRC about, and they deliberately shy away from that duty to confront, there should be hell to pay.




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