Feb 21, 2022

EDUCATION FRONTLINES: Illiterate listeners

Posted Feb 21, 2022 1:05 PM
<b>John Richard Schrock</b>
John Richard Schrock


Scientists are being chastised for not communicating well with citizens about this pandemic. But communications involves two parties: a clear speaker and a literate listener. And the biggest problem these last few years is listener illiteracy.  

It became evident that the masking effort in 2020—despite being only partially enacted—had dramatically reduced the number of influenza cases. But large numbers of the public dismissed this news, alleging that public health officials were just counting cases of flu as COVID-19. But the percentage of U.S. respiratory specimens submitted to the CDC that tested positive for influenza dropped from over 20 percent to 2.3 percent. Nevertheless, a large number of science illiterate Americans continue to believe there is no way to distinguish between flu and COVID-19.

The full explanation has long been available on the CDC website: “The CDC Influenza SARS-CoV-2 (Flu SC2) Multiplex Assay is a real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test that detects and differentiates RNA from SARS-CoV-2, influenza A virus, and influenza B virus in upper or lower respiratory specimens.” But despite the availability of such accurate information, a reader has to have some understanding of what “PCR” and “RNA” mean. In the United States, few outside of healthcare professionals have a clue.

Folks all want to know how “dangerous” a new disease agent is going to be. But that is an inexact word. It involves more specific factors such as how “contagious” it is or how “virulent” it will be and whether folks can be asymptomatic but still be carriers. In this pandemic, each of these distinctions has been important. But much of our population does not understand these concepts.

Many citizens think that we wear masks to protect ourselves. But early in this pandemic, researchers analyzed three scenarios: masks as “source control” where an infected person wears a mask and the aerosol particles are filtered as they breathe out, “wearer protection” where an uninfected person wears a mask to filter the particles being breathed in, and “universal masking” where both are wearing a mask. Research was clear. A properly worn face mask on an infected person is significantly more important in reducing transmission to others than a mask prevents an uninfected person from becoming infected. And the lowest rate of transmission is when both are wearing face masks. The concept is simple and taught in physics classes: diffusion. Yet few citizens understand diffusion. And simply talking about “one-way masking” overlooks this critical difference.

There are two parties involved in effective communication: the speaker and the listener. These concepts of “PCR,” “RNA, ” “aerosol” and “diffusion” cannot be reduced to everyday words. They require a minimal science education where these concepts are taught by knowledgeable teachers in science classes. Lab experiences make these terms meaningful. That has occurred in most of Europe and East Asia, but not here.

This problem of science illiteracy had already arisen earlier in medicine and pharmacy. When  patients come into the hospital and are diagnosed with a serious ailment, medical doctors do not have  time to provide the semesters-long human anatomy and physiology knowledge that explains their disorder or disease in full context. When you pick up your prescription at a pharmacy, you are now directed to a window where the pharmacist attempts to explain that three-a-day does not mean take all three at the same time.

Another complication comes from our prior success eliminating the major serious contagious diseases through antibiotics and vaccination. Today only a handful of elderly remember whooping cough, smallpox or the Mother’s March that funded the very successful polio vaccine.

No amount of simplified language can make up for listeners who do not understand the most basic concepts in modern health. If there is a major cause for this illiteracy, it is not to be found in scientists who cannot communicate well. The problem is over forty years of inadequate American schooling in human biology and related basic sciences at K–12 and university levels. And that problem rests with school boards, university schools of education, and our cultural disregard for academics.  

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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities during 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.