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On Science, Power and Influence

“If one day, my words are against science, choose science.” M.K. Atatürk

Photo taken by the author from public broadcasting, April, 2020

The Oval Office

The setting is the one we have all known and seen in so many circumstances, in news reports, press conferences, movies, and other occurrences.

The room is full of politicians, invited advisors, administrative staff, reporters, and camera operators. The facing couches are separated by a small coffee table with an airplane model in the middle. Two wide yellow chairs, are laid in close proximity of this setting, in front of the fireplace. Around eight persons are seated, well dressed, discussing politely, on a calm tone, waiting for each other’s’ turn; and, a handful of standing media people, like a bunch of wheat, behind one of the couches, eager to get the best position and to capture the discussion, to move the mikes and cameras where the hotspots are, to address pressing questions.

It is April 29th, 2020, and the main TV stations are broadcasting the live transmission from the Oval Office: U.S. President and the Vice-President are meeting Gov. Edwards of Louisiana. Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, Dr. Adamson and Dr. Billioux are there as well.

Anyone watching all those important men and women discussing could observe the following:

  • NONE of the sitting VIPs are wearing face masks;
  • Only one person in the entire room, a reporter by all appearances, is wearing a face mask. However, he is taking the mask off when addressing questions, so when he is in the spotlight, he is not wearing a mask either;
  • NONE of the participants is observing the social distancing recommendations.

Analyzing the meta-communication

The cozy gathering is talking mainly about the COVID-19 pandemic; this can be observed if we only read the transcript of the meeting.

However, if we are trying to draft an analysis of the meta-communication during this event, we can reveal several incongruences with the verbal messages.

Here is what observers might identify as simultaneously being signaled or communicated during this meeting:

  • The subjects of the meeting interact like there is no pandemic ( thus there is incongruency between stating that the coronavirus can affect anyone and the overt behavior, not- worried about the existence of coronavirus);
  • The context signal having access to resources that we are not aware of (they act relaxed, as if knowing about not being at risk of getting the SARS-COV2 virus from each other);
  • Attendees create the impression of knowing the status and exposure risk history of everyone in the room (the hypothesis of trusting in each other is not plausible enough to explain why no prevention measures are followed);
  • Accepting the “no mask — no social distancing” protocol might be suggesting that nobody wants to make the President look bad (since he publicly admitted opting out from wearing a face mask);
  • They might strike one as looking heroic, unintimidated by the invisible virus ( the illusion of invulnerability);
  • The participants’ behavior might signal being part of a higher status pack (regular citizens are to wear masks in public spaces in most countries, but citizens of this group do not have to practice what they preach);
  • We might be witnessing a rare phenomenon, such as having around the same table a unique group of people immune to SARS-COV2 (in which case, I am hoping they’ll volunteer to donate plasma for the COVID treatment);
  • The media advisors might want the group to appeal to all audiences: to those who are worried about the virus (thus the discussion about coronavirus response), and to those who do not believe it exists (hence subtext communication: no masks, no social distancing);
  • We witness the highly unbelievable situation where none of the attendees is going to interact later with at least one vulnerable person.

How did Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, Dr. Adamson, and Dr. Billioux failed me?

What vexes me, in the above-described story is the army of doctors who bow their heads and play along with the politicians’ whims and preferences.

I am disappointed when I witness such a significant group of public health specialists who do not want to irritate the high-rank politicians; all the doctors and PhDs are there with a different mission, not that of companions!

Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, Dr. Adamson, and Dr. Billioux need to act as better leaders.

They were not in that Office by chance, but as representatives of reason and science, and I expected them to impose respect for evidence-based health behaviors, for their field of work and, of course, for the citizens. I expected them to create a block of pressure, even if that meant not playing along with the instincts, preferences, and pride of the top politicians. I am distressed when I see all these doctors playing dead, playing along, and being puppet-like cooperative.

We are not living anymore in a world that can be saved by the singular actions of one charismatic person. Systems and cooperation are the ways in which complex societies can solve problems. This is the mindset towards which we need to move to. Collective leadership and system leadership are the way forward, and it is my conviction that only this new type of leader will be effective in truly catalyzing resources, reactions, situations, and outcomes.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

The above quote distills the wisdom of George Orwell, as illustrated in this famous novella, Animal Farm, written in 1945. Orwell was one of the many keen spirits who attentively observed society, and satirically wrote about how it functions.

The above-analyzed event reminded me of another great observer of society, one who is not so famous, the Romanian poet Grigore Alexandrescu. He wrote in 1842 a fable that I know by heart. It is called The Dog and the Pooch, and its protagonist is a dog, Samson, famous for barking a lot around the courtyard, declaiming in front of an ox, about equality among animals. A dirty pooch, who hid in a corner, hears Samson’s preach and feels encouraged to step forward and commend “brother” Samson for his vision! Samson gets quite offended at the sight of the dirty cur and replays emphatically:

“Indeed I was saying

That I do not love pride and that I hate lions,

That I want equality, but not with …pooches. “

Thou shalt not act against science, evidence, and reason.

I am not a politician, and this article is not about politics. But it is a reflection on the importance of reason, consistency, and honesty. I am taking this example of the Oval Office meeting since it is such a visible situation, but I can give similar examples from my country and my city happening on a daily basis.

At some unspoken level, we are aware that at least for some leaders, access is granted to more significant resources, including more comprehensive intelligence and information, and that they will get help quicker in case of necessity. I guess we are all tacitly acknowledging that there is a high probability that the President of the United States is regularly tested for Corvid-19, and so is his staff. I do not have a problem with this!

Nevertheless, as a citizen of the world, I have expectations from those who claim to strive for two significant objectives: leading the pandemic crisis response and setting an example for the citizens they represent. I claim for them to walk their talk. If they do not understand the science, if they are not convinced by proof, then I need them to fake it: pretend that they do not know their COVID-19 status, pretend they understand why the transmission prevention measures are being enforced, pretend they are equal with “the pooches”.

Top view of a compass on a map
Photo by Himesh Kumar Behera on Unsplash

And if men and women of state cannot do this at the advice at PR specialists or of their Chief of Staff, then I expect scientists and doctors to create a block of reason and to demand congruence between recommendations, behaviors, and policies.

Let us ponder more often on the words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who wisely encouraged his followers:

“If one day, my words are against science, choose science.”

© Ana-Maria Schweitzer 2020

I am a Romanian health psychologist, working in philanthropy and involved in developing prevention and care programs for people with chronic conditions. As a seeker of meaning, I use writing and playing with words, as ways of uncovering both the order and disorder that reign inside and outside our minds.

On Science, Power and Influence was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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