Stop “trusting the science” and start trusting democracy

I’m an educator and a scholar by profession. So if you ask me, in the abstract, what students should do, I’m always going to go all out — do all the reading you can, pick the most challenging paper topic, take the courses that engage you the most intellectually, etc., etc. That’s because that’s my expertise and my life. If students come to me with problems that keep them from doing that, I’m happy to help them talk through their priorities, but I’m no more help than any other trusted person. I’m not a life coach, I’m an educator — I want to tell them how to get the best education.

The same thing happens with health professionals, I think. I have been having episodic symptoms that prompted my doctor to recommend I abstain from coffee and alcohol for a week and get back to him. When I told him the symptoms hadn’t come back under this new regime, his initial recommendation was for me to continue it for the rest of my life. And that’s fine. He’s a doctor and he’s going to give the maximal medical recommendation. It’s up to me to balance that with other quality of life concerns. (And to his credit, when I pushed back on his recommendation, he was happy to help me think of ways to experiment and strike a balance that works for me.)

This is all the more true when it comes to public health officials. If you ask them how you prevent the spread of covid, they will lead with the maximal plan, just like if you ask if vaccinated people pose a danger of spreading covid, they will say yes because there is still some miniscule danger. Just as it’s up to my students to figure out how to square their education with other concerns and up to me to figure out how to square my symptoms with quality-of-life concerns, so too it’s up to a democratic society to figure out how to square the public health officials’ advice with other factors.

Our elected representatives have mostly done a really shitty job of that — Republicans more than Democrats, of course, but across the board — and the answer to that is not to “trust the science” and just do whatever the expert commands you to do. The answer is a more robust democratic culture, including higher quality public officials with more creativity and integrity. And if the behavior of a big portion of our population makes you distrust democracy, keep in mind that they behaved that way in large part because they felt that the measures in question were an arbitrary imposition by some outside force, rather than the result of democratic deliberation in which they are invested — and on that point, and that point alone, they were correct. Public officials have tended to berate and bully and manipulate us rather than actually treating us like adults who live in a democratic society. That’s all they know how to do. That’s “best practices.”

We deserve better — all of us, including the asshole anti-maskers.

One thought on “Stop “trusting the science” and start trusting democracy

  1. What’s really obnoxious about this phenomenon is they are, in fact, not just giving expert advice as straight facts, they are taking it upon themselves to spin it in a way they think will be most helpful in containing the situation at any given moment. In this way, the weird medical establishment fear-mongering about the vaccine they’re promoting heavily (“get the shot! it’s not a cure! stay home!”) is very related to the bad mask advice at the beginning of the pandemic. They didn’t tell people not to buy masks because they didn’t think masks would be effective, they were worried there would be a shortage of PPE for medical professionals and were trying not to cause a panic run on them, among other political considerations, despite the fact that masks were pretty obviously a reasonable precaution. Similarly, they’re trying to contain a new covid wave, so they are essentially bending the truth to get people to stay cautious even after vaccination.

    To your point, this is NOT a good strategy! All people know is they are being lied to, whether it’s with their best interest in mind or not. The better decision would be to give people and/or elected representatives the facts as best they know them. Whether americans are likely to do the right and reasonable thing with the best available facts is another question entirely, but constantly undercutting your own reputation by lying “in the best interests of the public’ is a disastrously bad strategy when you need them to trust you in the future, at all, and only serves to funnel more people into pseudo-science conspiracy theory bullshit.

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