Expertise and the “Building Distrust” of Public Health Agencies
If you want to know something about science, and you don’t know much about science, it seems that the best course of action would be to ask the experts. It’s not always obvious who these experts are, but there are often some pretty easy ways to identify them: if they have a lot of experience, are recognized in their field, do things like publish important papers and win grant money, etc., then there’s a good chance they know what they’re talking about. Listening to the experts requires a certain amount of trust on our part: if I’m relying on someone to give me true information then I have to trust that they’re not going to mislead me, or be incompetent, or have ulterior motives. At a time like this it seems that listening to the scientific experts is more important than ever, given that people need to stay informed about the latest developments with the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, there continues to be a significant number of people who appear to be distrustful of the experts, at least when it comes to matters concerning the coronavirus in the US. Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that he believed that there was a “building distrust” in public health agencies, especially when it comes to said agencies being transparent with developments in fighting the pandemic. While Dr. Fauci did not put forth specific reasons for thinking this, it is certainly not surprising he might feel this way.
That being said, we might ask: if we know that the experts are the best people to look to when looking for information about scientific and other complex issues, and if it’s well known that Dr. Fauci is an expert, then why is there a growing distrust of him among Americans?
One reason is no doubt political. Indeed, those distrustful of Dr. Fauci have claimed that he is merely “playing politics” when providing information about the coronavirus: some on the political right in the US have expressed skepticism with the severity of the pandemic and the necessity for the use of face masks specifically, and have interpreted the messages from Dr. Fauci as being an attack on their political views, motivated by differing political interests. Of course, this is an extremely unlikely explanation for Dr. Fauci’s recommendations: someone simply disagreeing with you or giving you advice that you don’t like is not a good reason to find them distrustful, especially when they are much more knowledgeable on the subject than you are.
But here we have another dimension to the problem, and something that might contribute to a building distrust: people who disagree with the experts might develop resentment toward said experts because they feel as though their own views are not being taken seriously.
Consider, for instance, an essay recently written by a member of a right-wing think tank called “How Expert Worship is Ruining Science.” The author, clearly skeptical of the recommendations of Dr. Fauci, laments what he takes to be a dismissing of the views of laypersons. While the article itself is chock-a-block with fallacious reasoning, we can identify a few key points that can help explain why some are distrustful of the scientific experts in the current climate.
First, there is the concern that the line between experts and “non-experts” is not so sharp. For instance, with there being so much information available to anyone with an internet connection, one might think that given one’s ability to do research for oneself that we should not think that we can so easily separate the experts from the laypersons. Not taking the views of the non-expert seriously, then, means that one might miss out on getting at truth from an unlikely source.
Second, recent efforts by social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to prevent the spread of misinformation are being interpreted as acts of censorship. Again, the thought is that if I try to express my views on social media, and my post is flagged as being false or misleading, then I will feel that my views are not being taken seriously. However, the reasoning continues: the nature of scientific inquiry is meant to be that which is open to objection and criticism, and so failing to engage with that criticism, or to even allow it to be expressed, represents bad scientific practice on the part of the experts. As such, we have reason to distrust them.
While this reasoning isn’t particularly good, it might help explain the apparent distrust of experts in the US. Indeed, while it is perhaps correct to say that there is not a very sharp distinction between those who are experts and those who are not, it is nevertheless still important to recognize that if an expert as credentialed and experienced as Dr. Fauci disagrees with you, then it is likely your views need to be more closely examined. The thought that scientific progress is incompatible with some views being fact-checked or prevented from being disseminated on social media is also hyperbolic: progress in any field would slow to a halt if it stopped to consider every possible view, and that the fact that one specific set of views is not being considered as much as one wants is not an indication that productive debate is not being conducted by the experts.
At the same time, it is perhaps more understandable why those who are presenting information that is being flagged as false or misleading may feel a growing sense of distrust of experts, especially when views on the relevant issues are divided along the political spectrum. While Dr. Fauci himself has expressed that he takes transparency to be a key component in maintaining the trust of the public, this is perhaps not the full explanation. There may instead be a fundamental tension between trying to best inform the public while simultaneously maintaining their trust, since doing so will inevitably require not taking seriously everyone who disagrees with the experts.