The coming backlash against the public health experts
As COVID-19 rampages across the country and the world, well-meaning members of the political, journalistic, and academic establishments have begun to daydream about how our public-health emergency will produce a rebirth of respect for scientifically informed expertise in our public life.
I wouldn't bet on it.
Those expressing hope for such a renaissance are likely to be people who never lost their faith in experts in the first place. What they want and expect is that other people will change their minds, abandoning their skepticism and hostility toward those who profess to tell them and the country what they should do in a crisis. The trouble is that there are powerful historical, cultural, and political forces pushing in the other direction, encouraging the intensification of skepticism and hostility toward credentialized experts. The experience with coronavirus is likely to strengthen this tendency.
This is as much a function of our success at combatting the virus as it is a result of our mistakes. Yes, some epidemiologists and other medical experts have overstated likely death tolls and other predictions. But the message coming from the overwhelming consensus of public-health professionals has been that we need to practice social distancing and sheltering in place for several weeks — and that if we do so, the spread of the virus can be dramatically slowed, keeping the medical system from being overwhelming and preventing illness from spreading as widely as it otherwise would have. Many fewer people will die.
But of course there are no control groups in life, no alternative timelines we might use to evaluate definitively the relative effectiveness of our actions. All we know is what happens in our world, and that is always a murky mixture of natural processes we only partially understand, chance occurrences we can't entirely control, and human agency and the often unintended consequences that follow from it.
When confronting a menacing, highly contagious disease we have good reason to think has the potential to kill millions, it seems reasonable to take actions we hope will save lives. If we take those actions and the number of fatalities turns out to be lower than many widely publicized estimates, that might show that our efforts worked splendidly — maybe far better than we dared to dream when our policies were enacted. Congratulations are in order, as is gratitude for the knowledge and wisdom of the experts who guided the crafting and implemented the policies. This is what those hoping for a rebirth of respect for expertise are likely to conclude when they see that a leading model for predicting deaths during the pandemic has significantly changed its forecast to suggest 10,000-15,000 fewer people will die of COVID-19 over the next two months.
But that's not the only way to look at it. Many others are likely to reach a different conclusion. Maybe the lower level of mortality is largely a result of the novel coronavirus being less deadly than we were led to believe. Maybe we shut down the social world — and set ourselves up to pay the potentially stupefying economic and psychological costs of having done so — for no good reason. Yes, more people would have died had we continued to work, travel, shop, socialize, and go to school and church. But how many? Millions more? Or merely several thousand more?
We will never know. But because we most certainly will know the terrible consequences of our effort to forestall an outcome that never unfolded in reality and was merely an imaginary scenario based to a considerable extent on highly informed but also anxiety-infused guesswork, the naysayers will always be able to make a powerful argument against those who did the guessing, and those who listened to them.
Get ready for it: "We deferred to the geniuses for no good reason, and now they have the blood of the economy on their hands." The saddest thing about it is that had things gone the other way — if public-health officials had downplayed the danger and encouraged people to go about their lives without adjusting their behavior — a lot more people would have died, and likely the very same critics would be taking the experts to task for the opposite failing. Heads we win, tails they lose: Whatever happens, average everyday non-expert opinion gets to flatter itself, and those who use expertise to try to guide that opinion knowledgeably and wisely get the abuse.
Americans have long tended toward insubordination against intellectual elites, and now President Trump is right there to encourage and manipulate it for his own purposes. Isn't it obvious that he'll be cheering on the hecklers if the body count stays on the lower end of estimates while the unemployment rate rises well into the double digits? The man's great, unmatched political talent is responding to events with an almost comical inconstancy that leaves every option open down the road, once he sees how things work out. Whatever happens, he can always pivot and go on the attack, blaming others for giving him bad advice he never really trusted, with a couple of skeptical lines tossed off at a press briefing weeks before serving as cover to convince his admirers that he saw through the nonsense before anyone else.
None of this means that our experts are beyond reproach. They have made and continue to make serious mistakes that need to be examined and hopefully learned from. That goes, too, for the mistakes of elected officials. When the pandemic is behind us, there should be and undoubtedly will be investigations into what worked and what didn't, what saved lives and what increased suffering needlessly (in both medical and economic terms).
But in the meantime, it would be a good idea to resist the coming backlash against people using their knowledge and skills as best they can to respond intelligently to a genuine crisis in a way that does as little harm as possible. Experts aren't gods or saints. They are as fallible as the rest of us. But they know things most of us don't, and they are not our enemies.
Those confronting a pandemic can use all the help they can get.
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