Politics and Scientists: Why Some Don’t Trust the Scientists
There is good news interlaced with all the bad news that dominates the headlines these days. Over the past several, projected COVID-19 deaths in the United States have decreased from 100–200,000 down to about 80,000 and then again to roughly 60,000. This is evidence that social distancing is working, except some people say otherwise.
While most of us are inclined to trust people like Dr. Anthony Fauci — who is an expert who has been doing this longer than some of us have been alive — others, mostly a certain subset of President Trump’s base, say the downward revisions were obvious. It would be a mistake to try to take what is going on in New York City and apply that to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, we are in the middle of a government-ordered shutdown which very well lead to an government-ordered economic depression with no guarantee of a V-shaped recovery.
Of course, this is an oversimplification of the problem. Naturally, New York got hit hard. It is a densely populated area with a massive public transit system that sees many people crammed into buses and subway cars. Exacerbating NYC’s problem was Bill de Blasio — not exactly a right-winger — refusing to cancel schools and close down the public transportation system. States in the middle of the country such as North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and others do not, so why should life have to come to a halt for them?
None of these are wrong in and of themselves, but the mistake (I don’t like the word “lie” because it implies a certain level of malice and I believe these people are genuinely concerned about people who have lost their jobs because some people cannot go to work in their pajamas like some of us can. Anybody unmoved by current unemployment numbers should refrain from commenting) comes in omissions.
The numbers have been revised because social distancing is working. Sweden tried the “cure is worse than the disease” strategy and it appears to be backfiring horrendously.
So, why do some people, including the president, want so desperately to return to normal despite the fact that if the virus persists it will be hard to go back to normal due to unseemly high rates of illness, hospitalizations, and death (If 1% of Americans die from the virus, that would still be roughly 3.3 million, which would be a massive national trauma. For comparison, the U.S. suffered, depending on the source, between 400–420,000 casualties during WWII or about 0.3% of the population).
The answer is not that some people care more about their 401(k) than their grandma or because they are right-wing, science-denying religious nationalists as one New York Times op-ed claimed, but in how politicians and political commentators see themselves and the world and how scientists view themselves and the world.
For a scientist, failure is a foreign concept. Fauci and others might channel their inner Thomas Edison and say the models did not fail, they just proved multiple ways not to make a COVID-19 model. As more data comes in from more regions, they can refine the assumptions built into them. This is all part of the scientific process of hypothesizing, testing, re-hypothesizing, and re-testing. If you want to be a good scientist, you better have patience.
For the poltico, viruses are not something they are familiar with. They understandably want life to get back to normal as soon as possible, but a vaccine timetable of 12–18 months seems like forever. While scientists are patient and willing to take their time to make sure that any vaccine is safe and effective, the politico knows that you can not keep a free people locked up in their homes for that long. Eventually people will say “screw it.”
It does not help when you have states adding restrictions for no apparent reason other than because they can. Hypocritical mayors and governors banning people from going to their own vacation homes or roping off certain areas of stores that remain open, including baby car seats and garden sections that allow people to grow their own food, is a great way to get people revolt against social distancing guidelines.
Among conservatives especially there is also a tendency to believe that the term “political science” is an oxymoron. Among populist conservatives that tendency is even more pronounced. Politicians and political experts have a bad habit of, when be confronted with their theories and models on one hand and the real world on the other, saying that their theories are correct and reality is wrong. This is where we get sayings such as “X is committed to the old and disproven ways of the past.”
Naturally a populist conservative, seeing cable news dominated by out-of- touch Never Trump Republicans who think of the glory days of the Republican Party was when they ran it, despite constant voter rejection of that vision, views actual scientists the same way. Never Trump’s vision for the country was rejected by reality (i.e. the voters) and now reality is rejecting the scientists’ models and it’s only because they are too prideful and too stubborn that they refuse to admit that.
There is also the unhealthy belief that everyone in the bureaucracy is secretly a deep state plot out to get Trump. It may seem like a lifetime ago, but the Senate impeachment vote was on February 5. According to this line of thinking, the deep state is another conglomerate of D.C. swamp creatures who have had their own theories, especially foreign policy theories, disproven by real world events and the voters in turn elected Trump to fix that, but The Swamp still clings to them and is trying to take down Trump for daring to challenge them.
Of course, there are hacks in the bureaucracy. A good many of them have become famous by flexing their Resistance credentials and gotten cushy TV gigs and book deals, but many are not.
There is a fringe belief that Fauci and the others are part of this cabal that states Fauci is telling the country to jump off a bridge and the country, deferring to Fauci’s expertise, is doing so. A more benign criticism he is a scientist, not an economist.
This is non-sense. Fauci has rightfully told the mainstream media to stop trying to pit him against Trump. Some sub-sections of conservative media should do the same. Fauci has even said there is a possibility that we could enjoy a normal summer. That doesn’t sound like a deep state plot to destroy the economy and kill Trump’s re-election chances. There does not appear to be a single political bone in Fauci’s body, if there is, he has done a great job in not letting that affect how he does his job.
Despite the avalanche of genuine grief and apprehension and politically-motivated doomsday porn from the news media and certain politicians who play into those emotions for their own purposes, there is good news. Forecasted apex dates are moving up and estimated deaths are down nearly 40%. It would be a shame to throw it all away, just because the initial models were not fully accurate.