unproven efficacy

Shikanosuke Yagaki, Untitled (indoor), 1930–9


Changing the communication strategy to overcome ignorance or bad faith in times of denialists

A Brazilian friend, traveling around the Portuguese homeland, had one of those linguistic experiences that we hear about from time to time. “Do you have hours?”, he asks the guard at a bus station. “Yes,” the other replied. Our compatriot couldn't contain himself: "You know what I'm going to ask you now, don't you?" “Yes, I know,” replied the watchman, smiling. "And why don't you answer anymore?", insisted the zuca. "And why don't you ask me," reasonably replied the Portuguese.

Situations like this reinforce the thesis continually defended by the Unicamp linguist, Kanavillil Rajagopalan. For the scholar, the way to assume that in Brazil we speak a language other than Lusitanian will involve looking not only at grammatical structures, but mainly at pragmatic issues – a field of linguistic studies that deals, roughly speaking, with how meaning is constructed in situations concrete communications.

When asking “Do you have hours?”, the Brazilian enunciator hopes that his interlocutor will adopt a cooperative posture and carry out a conversational implicature, that is, that he will activate elements of the context to interpret an implicit meaning (something like translating the question he was asked in this way). : “If you are wearing a watch, please tell me what time it is now”).

As this example and others show, these implicatures are not unambiguous. Factors such as contextual knowledge, the shared cultural universe and even the worldviews of the interlocutors can make the enunciatee not cooperate in the construction of meaning exactly as the enunciator intended. Precisely for this reason, it is more than urgent to replace the expression “unproven effectiveness” with “proven ineffectiveness”, when we talk about the drugs that make up the misleading “kit-covid”.


The frustrated quest for effectiveness

In the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, experiments with drugs that could treat the effects of the infection were expected and desirable. It was also expected – although not desirable – that it would be a process of trial and error, hypotheses and tests, as it usually happens in Science.

Once the initial hypothesis is frustrated – as happened with the notorious drugs ivermectin, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine – it makes sense to say that such drugs “have no proven efficacy”. Efficacy existed only as a hypothesis, but the data did not support it. Since, in the scientific universe, proofs are worth more than convictions, end of story. Only not.

In a historical moment marked by post-truth, fake news and bubble effect, the value of evidence and proof is being challenged in several fields. Thus, the expression “unproven effectiveness” opens the door to mistaken implications, whether due to ignorance or bad faith.

Well-meaning journalists use the expression “unproven efficacy” hoping that their readers will realize the following implicature: “medicines have been tested, but the predicted efficacy has not been proven; therefore, such drugs cannot cure covid patients.” Political, religious, economic leaders (not to mention large private health groups…) create contexts for the same expression to lead to the opposite implication: “efficacy has not been proven, but we are living in an extreme moment, we must have faith and cling to all hopes, we cannot be trapped by the rigor and arrogance of scientists, we must use these drugs even without their approval”.

Given this ambiguity, it is urgent to replace “unproven effectiveness” with “proven ineffectiveness”. The second expression may sound somewhat strange, since the intention of the studies was never to prove the ineffectiveness of the drug, but to seek a cure during the pandemic. This other expression, however, is more precise, thanks to the change in the scope of negation: in “effectiveness unproven”, the denial falls on “proven”, without explicitly denying the possible effectiveness; in "ineffectiveness proven”, the negative prefix “in-” denies its own effectiveness, interdicting the wrong implicature.


linguistic empathy

The defense of scientific knowledge, not infrequently, has been strongly based on a supposed moral superiority. On one side, there would be us (bachelors, masters, doctors and sympathizers), incorruptible friends of the truth. On the other hand, they would be (false prophets, despicable messiahs and ignorant minions), fervent and incorrigible denialists.

Adopting this view, the supposed “side of good” runs the risk of not assuming that the fight against denialism requires greater care with the linguistic strategies adopted, especially in mass communication, aimed at the general public. Clear communication that considers the different possibilities for receiving the message and seeks to favor the appropriate implications is essential in this context of “infodemic” (a term used by the WHO to name the excess of information, not always of good quality, that accompanies the current pandemic) . For now, our communication strategies with the general public still lack proven effectiveness.

*Henrique Santos Braga He holds a PhD in Philology and Portuguese Language from USP.

*Marcelo Modolo is professor of philology at the University of São Paulo (USP).


Originally published on Journal of USP.

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