MINOT, N.D. — "Pushing back against attacks on science, Fargo doctor says people should realize their own 'confirmation bias'"
That's the headline over Robin Huebner's article about North Dakota State University public health professor Dr. Paul Carson.
It's an interesting read.
I've admired Carson's advocacy in the past. He's done a lot of work to push back on ignorance around the issue of vaccines, for example. In Huebner's article, he decries a lack of public trust in the medical and science community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"As the pandemic wears on, members of the medical and science communities are being challenged and discounted with increasing frequency," Huebner wrote.
This is a true statement, and while the trend is driven at least in part by conspiracy-addled nonsense peddled on social media and cable news, we can't ignore what the medical and scientific communities have done to compromise the public's trust in them.
Take, for example, the way that community handled the Black Lives Matter protests amid this public health crisis.
In a July 6 article for the New York Times, columnist Michael Powell wrote about high-profile scientists and doctors who were quick to condemn rallies against coronavirus lockdowns as dangerous gatherings that would undoubtedly quicken the spread of the virus, but just weeks later endorsed much larger and more numerous Black Lives Matter protests as safe.
“Instinctively, many of us in public health feel a strong desire to act against accumulated generations of racial injustice,” Dr. Mark Lurie, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University, told Powell. “But we have to be honest: A few weeks before, we were criticizing protesters for arguing to open up the economy and saying that was dangerous behavior. I am still grappling with that."
The grappling is warranted because the impression that turn of events gave the larger public is that public health pronouncements from public health experts are going to be filtered through the politics of those supposedly objective experts.
We talk a lot about diversity in our society, and how it can be difficult to inspire trust in institutions from people who don't feel represented in those institutions.
Typically this discussion has centered on things like race and gender.
Are there enough women in public office? Are there enough people of color in the news media?
If those questions are important, why isn't the question of ideological diversity in the sciences and academia important?
In Huebner's article, Carson refers to polling by Pew Research which shows high regard, overall, for the viewpoints of scientific and medical experts, though he points out that the trust isn't uniform across political lines. “Sadly, that does still seem to separate out somewhat on partisan lines. I don't understand that,” he said.
He may be referring to this Pew survey from May.
This was in its findings: "Among Democrats and those leaning to the Democratic Party, 53% have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public interest, up from 37% in January 2019. But among Republicans and those who lean Republican, 31% express a great deal of confidence in medical scientists, roughly the same as in 2019 (32%). As a result, there is now a 22 percentage point difference between partisan groups when it comes to trust in medical scientists."
Maybe this partisan difference is rooted in some of the blatantly ideological pronouncements of supposedly objective science experts?
For any society to function well, the public must trust its institutions.
Scientists and doctors, yes, but also journalists and government officials. "Trust is a key ingredient in the secret sauce of the happy Nordic countries and in well-governed places such as Switzerland and Canada," Kevin Williamson wrote for National Review earlier this week. "When you have lots of trust and lots of cooperation, you can run programs more effectively, administer agencies with more confidence, and count on both the public and the bureaucrats to conduct themselves with a reasonable level of honesty and scrupulousness."
There is not a lot of trust in America right now.
Part of that has to do with the self-serving chaos agent occupying the White House right now, but the erosion of trust in institutions like journalism began long before Trump came along. His rise was a product of that erosion, not its cause.
The cause, I believe, is that the politics and culture which permeate our society's most important institutions are not representative of the larger public.
Worse, most of the people in charge of these institutions don't seem to care much about the problem.
To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com
Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.