Precision can be described as the quality, condition or fact of being exact and accurate. Precision is essential, precision is intricate, and precision is beautiful; more than anything else, precision is necessary.
Introduction by Bruce Hennes, Hennes Communications…
We all learned in high school that words can be used to help, heal, inspire and lead. Words can harm, distract or obfuscate. Words can be warm and fuzzy, comforting and mellifluous, jagged or ironic.
Words should not be imprecise, especially when those words are used to make decisions about manufacturing specifications, treaties, property lines, job offers, inheritances, pre-nups, divorces, health, laws, taxes, public policy and the allocation of limited resources. Imprecision fosters confusion and exploitation.
Recently, Dr. Peter Sandman, perhaps the country’s foremost expert in the field of risk communications, wrote about the need for using precise definitions, focusing on the way public health professionals talk about COVID. In his article, Sandman looks at a variety of words, including misinformation, masks, airborne, immunity, natural immunity, case, booster, emergency, pandemic and endemic.
Whether you’re in health care, education, the law, politics, the press – or just a regular person trying to keep up with all the words that get thrown at you and your family from the left, from the right, from those who offer help or from those who wish to harm – it’s nearly impossible to decide the right course of action without having correct, precise information.
Dr. Sandman stresses the importance of being explicit about what you mean – and equally explicity about what you don’t mean. He stresses the importance of warning your audience that other people often use terms differently, that you should expect to be misunderstood and that if you use a term that will likely be misunderstood, you should not pretend later that you were clear and “the public is confused.”
I have been thinking and arguing about COVID-19 terminology since the pandemic started. I am especially interested in how public health professionals—both officials and outside experts—talk about COVID.
There are terms that public health professionals often use imprecisely. There are terms they often use incorrectly. And there are terms they often use in a way that’s technically accurate but almost sure to be misunderstood by much of the public. Then, when they’re predictably misunderstood, they claim they were clear and the public is “confused.”
Politicians and journalists fall into these COVID language traps too. But for obvious reasons public health professionals should be held to a higher standard. And if they can do a better job of communicating clearly about COVID, maybe there’s hope that others will improve as well.
Here are some of my musings about COVID language traps. This isn’t truly an article. It’s a list. Read the entries that interest you.
I have posted an unabridged version of this non-article article that’s twice as long—with more terms and more details on each term—on my website.
The term “misinformation” used to mean and should mean verifiably false factual claims—claims that virtually all well-informed people consider disproved.
Sometimes it still means that. But to deeply committed people in many fields, “misinformation” now often means the “other side’s” unproven hypotheses and speculations, but not “our side’s” unproven hypotheses and speculations. I’d rather we didn’t dub as “misinformation” overconfident, unproven claims that might or might not turn out true—though I concede that knowingly pretending an unproven claim is established truth is a kind of misinformation. But what’s especially upsetting is when we apply a double standard to these claims depending on which side is making them.
Your unproven hypotheses and speculations are no more or less “misinformation” than mine.
Worse still, in political contexts “misinformation” has all too often come to mean merely statements—even verifiably true factual claims—that seem likely to lead people to conclusions or policies the speaker considers undesirable.
And COVID debates are unavoidably political. Any COVID-related statement that makes people less likely to get vaccinated or less likely to wear masks, for example, will be deemed “misinformation” by many public health professionals—and therefore sometimes by social media censors. That’s true not just of verifiably false factual claims, but also of debatable factual claims where the evidence is mixed; and of opinions or recommendations that aren’t factual claims at all; and even of verifiably true factual claims.
Consider a tweet that COVID is usually mild, so we should just rely on natural immunity and go about our business without boosters or other precautions. I think this is unwise advice. But its only factual claim, “usually mild,” is verifiably true. Calling this tweet “misinformation” misuses the term.
Here’s one of my favorite examples of a factually accurate COVID-related claim widely considered misinformation by public health professionals: COVID vaccines were granted Emergency Use Authorizations despite zero proof that they reduced the COVID death rate.
This is flat-out true. Demonstrating a reduction in mortality would have required much bigger and longer-lasting trials; enough people in the placebo groups would have had to die to yield a statistically significant benefit of vaccination. That would have delayed the vaccine rollouts unconscionably. So the FDA sensibly settled for proof that the vaccines reduced the incidence of symptomatic illness.
Conversely, even false factual claims are generally not deemed “misinformation” by public health professionals if they seem likely to lead people to conclusions that public health considers desirable.
I could offer a long litany of what I consider officially sanctioned COVID misinformation that public health professionals have declined to call misinformation at various times, including claims about:
The efficacy of cloth masks
Whether transmission is nearly always via droplets or often via aerosols
The risk of outdoor transmission
The likelihood of breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated and boosted people
And on and on
Some of these false factual claims seemed likely to turn out true when they were advanced, and are “misinformation” only in hindsight. But even in hindsight public health professionals rarely use that term about their own mistakes. And some of these claims were advanced—almost always for prosocial reasons—by public health professionals who knew they were unproven or even had grounds to suspect they were false.
The term “mask” is simply too broad. It is applied to face coverings that provide meaningful inbound and outbound protection against COVID, such as N95s. And it is applied to face coverings that provide little to no protection against COVID—loose-fitting cloth masks, including sometimes even the flimsiest of bandanas and neck gaiters.
Ideally we would have different terms for masks of different protective value. We have one such term—”respirator” for the most effective face covering—but it’s probably a lost cause to get people to use it much.
For the rest of this article, please click here.
NOTE: For the unabridged version of the article above, with additional references to sick/ill/illness/disease, case, booster, rare/common and significant, click here.