Bioethics Blogs

Ebola and the Challenge of Public Conversations

Writing on this blog two days ago, Tom Garigan offered a pretty thorough critique of the CDC’s response to Ebola, and the agency’s defense of that response.  I write not to challenge that, or even address it directly.  I do note that Tom is not alone in his criticism of the way the public health officials are speaking to the public at large.  Complaints have grown that the statements are unconvincing, defensive, incoherent, self-serving.  I also am not interested in arguing with the CDC or anyone else on this, for that matter, and I am not interested in adjudicating the behavior of specific individuals, entities, or groups.

But listening to some of today’s Congressional subcommittee hearing on the subject, I was reminded how easy it is to despair of public conversations about serious matters.  And today’s hearing seemed relatively thoughtful, as these things go.

I am reminded that it is all too facile for me or others in bioethics to appeal to public conversations as a way of addressing policy related to bioethical issues.  Democracy being messy as it is, and the constructivist soup we are in making things harder—those don’t fully explain our dysfunction.  Nor does an appeal to what seems obvious to me: that doctors usually don’t have a lot of media training, so instead of offering their main point first, they “bury the lead” behind a lot of qualifiers, and that sounds like they are running to their talking points [well, maybe they are] so that, instead of protecting us, they are “covering their [insert body part of your choice]s,” or are concerned first for keeping the public calm.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.