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COMMENTARY | The experts had a rough year. We still have to trust them.
I’ve spent years telling people, usually with exasperation and a certain amount of petulance, to trust experts and to stop obsessing about the rarity of their failure. But that was before a crisis in which millions of lives were dependent on a working relationship between science and government. Now that I must take my own advice, I feel the same anxiety I’ve so often dismissed in others. We—and I’m including myself here—need to come back to our senses about expertise.
My gut instincts are much like those of any other American. When my wife and I became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in our state, we plowed through different locations and times trying to capture an appointment. When we finally nailed down a date, I blurted out, as if it mattered: “Which vaccine is it?” I immediately ran through questions in my head. Do I trust the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine? Do I prefer one shot to two? Are Moderna’s data more reliable than Pfizer’s?
Perhaps most important: Do I have any idea what I am talking about?
The answer is no. I do not have any idea what I’m talking about when it comes to vaccines. I am a political scientist—which is to say that I am not a “scientist” at all. I have no special training in medical issues. Until the pandemic, I had never been given a choice about vaccines, and so I dutifully got my flu, polio, smallpox, tetanus, and other vaccines without asking any of these questions. I could have been getting jabbed with a syringe full of iced tea, for all I knew.
I feel better informed about vaccines now, but my knowledge doesn’t really matter. My wife’s doctor cut right to the chase when she told us (using those palpitation-inducing words “Given your age and risk factors”) to take whatever’s available, and that’s what we’re going to do.
But like many otherwise reasonable people, I’ve felt a bit unmoored during this chaotic year, amid the influx of new guidelines and mandates—a little hesitant to cede my instincts to the advice of strangers. (Less reasonable people have had no hesitation at all about ignoring such instructions altogether.) Our unmooring isn’t entirely our fault. Policy makers and local officials allowed themselves to be whipsawed by anger that surged both for and against mask mandates, lockdowns, and school closures. Instead of turning expert guidance into public regulations, they tried to thread the needle between science and public unhappiness and ended up, in some cases, with promulgated rules that made no sense at all and that satisfied neither scientists nor ordinary citizens.
Public-health officials suffered from self-inflicted wounds great and small. Early inconstancy about masks and transmissibility confused even well-meaning people who just wanted to know the right answer. Over the summer, hundreds of the same experts who told us not to gather even in small groups—for instance, to sing in a church choir or, more personally, have a small funeral for my brother—made a political exception for gigantic street protests where people held hands and shouted and chanted together.
At the top levels of leadership, many of America’s politicians simply panicked, prevaricated, or punted. Former President Donald Trump, who more than anyone bears responsibility for the public’s hostility to basic life-saving measures including masking, hid the fact that he was apparently in dire condition after falling sick with COVID-19. The supposed anti-Trump of the pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, looked like a pillar of reason by comparison, but he too botched important decisions that cost lives and then, in a Trump-like scramble, tried to conceal the ugly data while writing a book about his magnificent leadership. Other irresponsible leaders, including South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, basically told people to do whatever they wanted, a YOLO approach to governance that predictably resulted in death.
Little wonder that all of this produced a certain amount of hysteria, both real and manufactured, about the failure of the experts. But when the pandemic recedes—and after we have reflected on all of this death and heartbreak—we’ll need to recover some perspective and learn once again when to put aside gut instincts and listen to the people who know what they’re doing.
As paradoxical as this advice may seem, one important step to regaining our footing is for ordinary citizens to stop constantly seeking information as if we were fish darting about in a tank that’s been sprinkled with food. I say this as a victim of the same affliction; like everyone else, I am overwhelmed with extraneous information. I am far too awash in data, including much that I am not equipped to understand, about how each vaccine is made and which trials had better results.
I’m not advocating for accepting whatever experts say without delay or question. When our instincts and expert advice are in conflict, that presents a real dilemma. Experts can say that something is safe, but if we don’t feel that it’s safe, our inner voice can win out over reason. (Likewise, when experts say something is bad for us, we often dispose of that advice in favor of listening to the little imp on our shoulder telling us that it’s something we want to do, so it can’t be all that bad.)
The best experts help us find the sweet spot between our gut and our brain by explaining processes, risks, and benefits in ways that we can understand. The questions we pose to those experts are an important part of establishing a trusting relationship with them. But we must consider whether we are asking questions that are meaningful and intended to help us reach a decision, or whether we are asking questions to enjoy a temporary sense of empowerment. We should focus on useful inquiries that are guides to action: Do these vaccines have side effects? If I need two shots, how long can I wait between getting them? How long will immunity last? What can I do after I’m vaccinated?
We must also ask whether we distrust particular individuals or whether our beef is with the entire system. A certain amount of skepticism toward elected officials—who have a vested interest in being reelected—is normal. But in our polarized time, this distrust has become extreme. When President Joe Biden said that he thought the Fourth of July was a good target date for the return of small gatherings, many of his critics went ballistic: Who is Joe Biden to tell me what to do?
I had no particular objection to Biden’s statement because I tend to trust that he is listening to experts. I did not, however, trust that Trump was doing the same. But when Trump was still president, I believed that the scientists and doctors in government institutions were doing their best to fight the pandemic, even if I was worried that Trump was interfering in their work. I trusted those professionals not because they wear a white jacket or have certificates on their wall, but because I have confidence in the educational and scientific infrastructure that created them.
This belief is the crux of the matter. Sometimes, experts and their institutions fail. But people who believe that medical schools, research institutions, peer review, and lab trials—in other words, the entire structure of modern science—have all failed or become corrupted are beyond the reach of reason, and no expert advice will sway them.
The rest of us, however, can do better. We are capable of being serious adults who understand, if we choose to try, and accept that in every crisis, risks and imperfect solutions exist, while still maintaining our faith in expertise and its achievements.
I once worked with a U.S. Navy captain who commanded one of America’s most advanced nuclear submarines. He told me of the wondrous experience of surfacing in the North Atlantic in the middle of the night and standing on top of the conning tower just above the waves, nothing but sea and stars before him in the pitch blackness. He thought it was ecstasy; I became anxious merely imagining it.
I asked how he overcame the sense of helplessness and isolation that I felt just hearing his description of the experience. He seemed slightly amused at the question. “You just have to have faith in all that technology under your feet.”
What he meant was that you had to trust that everyone involved in making that submarine had done their job in good faith and to the best of their ability, and that their work was checked and rechecked by people who would want to feel safe putting their own children aboard that tiny sliver of steel in the midst of the great ocean.
I get a little shaky thinking about being alone on a boat hundreds of miles from land, just as I do about getting a shot in my arm to protect me from something no one knew existed a year ago. But I know that dedicated and decent people created such miracles. They have done their part, and I will do mine.
Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.
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