28 THE ADVOCATE
VOL. 79 PART 1 JANUARY 2021
think they do. That is a problem, because facts do matter, and experts and
public figures have a responsibility to advance their role in public conversations.
It is not that facts are not important, but in today’s court of public
opinion, it takes more than the weight of evidence to win the public over.
I am not the only one confused about the role of facts in public discourse.
Not long ago, social scientists who study risk communication also assumed
that people assess risk rationally by weighing evidence before they form
opinions. It followed that people would alter their perception of risk if they
were given more evidence.
Over time, researchers started looking into the tenacious disconnects
between established scientific evidence and uninformed public opinion.
Social scientists examined how people develop their understanding of risk,
confirming that more information alone does not change people’s opinions
about what is risky.4
University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic studies the social and cultural
factors involved in risk perception and communication. He argues
that experts and the public see risk differently. Experts look at risk as a calculation
of probability. But “riskiness” means more to the public than risk
statistics. The public takes a more personal approach, basing perception of
risk on voluntariness.5
According to Slovic, risk perception resides in us mostly as a “gut feeling”
rather than the outcome of analytic calculations. The most powerful of
these feelings is dread—the apprehension and fear linked with a sense of
having no control in a situation, with inequality (where others get the benefit,
while we get saddled with the risk) and with how catastrophic a risk is
seen to be. Misunderstanding the “dread factor” and the concerns that fuel
it intensifies the problem of public miscommunication.6
It is difficult to communicate effectively if you do not understand what
Slovic calls the “whisper of emotion”—the emotional meaning, the good or
bad feelings and gut instincts that help people make decisions. The power
of emotion is a critical consideration in risk communication. No matter how
good you think your argument is in a time of crisis, regardless of how provable
your facts, if the public feels its liberty or right to fair treatment is in
danger, you are losing the battle to dread.7
Early in the pandemic, Dr. Henry’s communication challenge was significant.
Thousands of epistemologists worldwide were collecting information
about the virus. Health officials and the public were still learning about
COVID-19. Nevertheless, Dr. Henry understood that it was more than a public
health crisis. It was also a communication emergency. Securing public
support for tough restrictions in the face of uncertainty was a challenge.