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April 10, 2024

Precision of Thought and Economy of Expression from HIV to COVID-19: A Conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci

By Leo Shih (H’26)

On March 26, 2024, the Conversations in Health: Global to Local class had the privilege of speaking with Distinguished University Professor Dr. Anthony Fauci. The former White House chief medical advisor and former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shed light on a career in public service advising presidents on crises from HIV/AIDS to COVID-19.

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Fauci grew up running errands and making deliveries for his family’s pharmacy. His family’s emphasis on service to others was honed at Regis High School and the College of the Holy Cross—institutions with a focus on Jesuit values. In particular, the idea of “people for others” has animated Dr. Fauci throughout his career, inspiring him to pursue medicine and public health. It also guided his decision to undertake a daring mid-career switch from researching autoimmune disorders to responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis. As he explained, the HIV/AIDS crisis was something truly unprecedented in the history of public health, an emerging disease with near 100% mortality specifically targeting—according to the understanding at the time—one underserved and stigmatized population: young gay men.

Throughout his work in HIV/AIDS, and later on during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Fauci witnessed the devastating effects of systematic racism, stigma, and other societal inequities on public health, in particular the disproportionate rates of comorbidities among minority groups. He also discussed how the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the unpredictable nature of public health, emphasizing the necessity of building equitable health systems capable of responding to health threats.

One of the primary difficulties of working in public health is translating scientific insights into action. Many speakers throughout the Conversations in Health course have described Dr. Fauci’s science communication abilities as second to none. When asked about his approach to science communication, he responded with a quote from a Jesuit priest he met during his time at Regis High School: “Precision of thought, economy of expression.” Elaborating on this, Dr. Fauci described the tendency of scientific experts to get caught up in describing 10 different interconnected ideas, instead of staying on one message. When you try and tell people 10 different things, you tell them nothing. Dr. Fauci also noted a counterproductive tendency among scientific experts to validate their own expertise while they speak by using jargon and introducing unneeded complexity.

At the same time, Dr. Fauci noted the responsibility of journalists to take account of the full scope of scientific evidence, mentioning how, in an attempt to create a sense of fairness, journalists would often find lone dissenting voices among the scientific community and amplify them, even if they ran counter to the recommendations of the majority of the scientific community. He noted that while the dissenting voices are important, this tendency can limit the adoption of public health measures.

The class was honored to have Dr. Fauci speak with us, and we hope to continue his legacy in public health through our own careers.

Leo Shih (H’26) is an undergraduate student in the School of Health majoring in global health and minoring in religion, ethics, and world affairs. He is a student in the Conversations in Health: Global to Local course.