An invisible enemy is killing thousands and forcing people worldwide to cower behind closed doors. Unfounded conspiracy theories and miracle “cures” abound on social media. Politicians and pundits send mixed messages about how to protect yourself.
Who you gonna call?
As the coronavirus rampages, the public increasingly is turning to experts in academia and government — the educated, experienced “elites” that many Americans had tuned out.
Ridiculed by some as Chicken Littles, enemies of capitalism or tools of Big Pharma, scientists are — for now — the new rock stars. They’re fixtures on cable news. Even President Donald Trump, who famously prefers his “gut” to expert opinions, accepts tactful corrections from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, who sets off Twitter eruptions when he isn’t at daily briefings.
“Suddenly, experts matter,” says Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, the brain trust for the government Abraham Lincoln established 157 years ago.
“People realize, when the chips are down and everything is on the line and you can be the next person in the hospital bed, it’s the experts that you want to listen to and the experts you wish you had listened to all along,” McNutt says.
Scientists know this is no time to gloat and they obviously didn’t want this to happen. But those whose warnings of pandemics and other disasters, particularly involving climate change, have gone unheeded see a “told-you-so type of moment” unfolding. As Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe puts it, “Every disaster movie starts with a scientist being ignored.”
“Americans have been subject to a lifetime of anti-scientific, anti-expertise, and anti-government propaganda. I’m not surprised at all that many of us choose to believe the propagandists instead of the scientists,” says science historian Erik Conway, co-author of the book “Merchants of Doubt.”
Some historians contend that “anti-intellectualism” is a fundamental American trait dating to the reasons for the Revolution. But that’s nothing like what’s happening now; Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington were elite leaders.
By the years after World War II, intellectualism was under siege in many quarters, exemplified in 1952 when Richard Nixon — hardly a slouch himself in the expertise department — famously called political opponent Adlai Stevenson an “egghead.” Expertise lost more luster in the 1960s and 1970s: Fear of nuclear holocaust, the Vietnam war and economic and social upheaval chipped at away at the idea of a government of the “best and brightest.”
Ironically, the trend accelerated as Americans became better educated and increasingly confident in their own opinions, sprouting from “an epidemic of narcissism,” says conservative political theorist Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College. The Internet provided an endless trove of information. Social media gave everyone a platform. But that didn’t necessarily make people more knowledgeable.
“It’s difficult to accept expert advice when you can’t endure ever being told that you’re wrong,” says Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise.”
“Nothing sinks my heart more as an expert than when someone says to me, ‘I do my own research,’” he says. “People don’t watch for information, but confirmation.”
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan and generations of politicians following him were deriding government as bloated and incompetent, says Mark Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political scientist. Career public servants, including scientists, were scorned as overbearing bureaucrats. It became fashionable to campaign as an outsider.
“This ideology of anti-government eventually gave us Trump, someone completely inexpert in governing,” Hetherington says. “And he wears that lack of his expertise on his sleeve.”
Against that backdrop, climate scientists in government agencies and universities have been besieged by political and pundit types who reject the research and don’t want to deal with the scary long-term consequences.
It’s not just a right-wing phenomenon; some on the left challenge the scientific consensus on vaccines and genetically modified organisms. But there’s nothing like a crisis to bring science back.
“Clear and present dangers tend to offer buoyant forces to a sinking ship,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said in an email. “But how many such disasters must we endure before the methods and tools of science are once again embraced, as they largely were from the industrial revolution up through the Cold War.”
The inclination to disbelief showed up in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, when Trump downplayed its severity and many Americans refused to change their behavior, says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Even now, some officeholders and commentators accuse epidemiologists of exaggeration. Fauci is getting federal protection because of worries for his safety.
But things are changing as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, says Craig Fugate, who headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Democratic President Barack Obama and Florida’s emergency management agency under Republican governors. He credits many of the nation’s governors with accepting what scientists are telling them — and Fauci, for his forthrightness and diplomacy.
“He’s been able to finesse Trump into doing what Trump did not want to do,” Fugate says.
Trump still promotes his own gut over his experts like Fauci, particularly on the unproven effectiveness of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. In a recent news conference, the president said this: “So what do I know? I’m not a doctor. I’m not a doctor, but I have common sense.”
“The early rejection of science by politicians in the United States and other countries is translating to deaths of more humans and a worse economy than we would have had otherwise,” says Jonathan Overpeck, dean of environmental studies at the University of Michigan.
The Pew Research Center reported last year that Americans’ trust in science to act in the public interest has risen in recent years and exceeds their faith in leaders of business, religion, media and government. However, Democrats and Republicans were divided over trusting scientists whose work involves the environment. Democrats were more inclined to welcome scientists into policy debates, while most Republicans said scientists should just present sound information and stay out of policy.
Going forward, how much respect is given to scientists and other experts involved with the pandemic will depend not just on how elected officials and the media treat them, but also on themselves.
Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, college basketball’s winningest coach and a frequent speaker about leadership, recently interviewed Fauci for his satellite radio show.
“Right now, we’re asking experts to give us guidance — life and death in some respects,” Krzyzewski said in a phone interview.
Krzyzewski, who has confronted his own naysayers and second-guessers, says experts can help their cause by presenting the truth clearly, succinctly and inspirationally. It’s also important to be informed and show humility. Scientists must also be better communicators, something McNutt says many have failed to do.
Says Benjamin: “We’ve finally taught the nation about public health and science, and I’m hoping we can build on that.”
University of Georgia professor Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society, wants people to push past the cliches and think critically.
“Scientists aren’t the crazy guy or woman at the beginning of the movie running around,” Shepherd says. “We are literally depending on it to save our lives. … People clearly realize that the science is going to get us out of this.”