Following Your Gut Isn’t the Right Way to Go

ISTOCK.COM/SKYNESHER

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | The experts had a rough year. We still have to trust them.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Subscribe to the magazine’s newsletters.

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.

[Read: People are keeping their vaccines secret]

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 ballisticWho 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.

[Read: The clearest sign the pandemic could get worse]

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.

NEXT STORY: U.S. Covid-19 Testing Has Dropped Dramatically

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.