If one takes Donald Trump and his administration to embody modern conservatism, it is easy to see in their response to the coronavirus pandemic the right’s final divorce from science and expertise. There was the case of Rick Bright, the Health and Human Services scientist who claims that the Trump administration retaliated against him when he objected to the administration’s rapid push to distribute anti-malaria drugs that were largely untested for treating coronavirus patients. There are reports that the president for months ignored his own intelligence experts’ warnings that the virus threatened our shores. There was the ongoing drama over whether Trump would fire Anthony Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. And there was the president’s daily passion play—the White House press briefings where he’d stand next to scientists who grimaced as he speculated that the death toll was exaggerated and that sunlight inside the body might kill the virus.
The White House’s sorry Covid-19 track record has sparked a chorus of dissent recently distilled by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who argues that the crisis displays conservatives’ long-standing “antipathy to science,” owing to “populist distrust of experts, religious rejection of information that undermines biblical literalism and efforts by giant corporations to evade regulation.” But this narrative is too pat. While something is plainly amiss in the relationship of the Trumpian right to science, it is hardly as principled as the religious objections of, say, creationists opposing evolutionary theory. Neither is it straightforwardly hostile.
What’s more curious about the response by the president and his allies to the virus is rather their embrace of scientific expertise of a sort. To counter the model that claimed more than two million Americans might die, skeptics advanced contrary models claiming tolls vastly lower. And in opposition to prevailing estimates of an infection fatality rate of 1 to 2 percent, Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis advanced a series of studies claiming that the real rate might be lower than the roughly 0.1 percent that accompanies the seasonal flu. Fox News hosts glommed on to a viral Medium post by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur arguing along the same lines. Most infamously, Didier Raoult, a roguish French researcher, became an overnight cause célèbre when he claimed to offer evidence that hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, two widely available drugs, might be highly effective in treating coronavirus infection—leading the president to proclaim the treatment a possible “miracle” cure.
The narrative that the pandemic reveals the damning failure of Republicans to listen to experts is also complicated by another element of the crisis: Experts got many things about the pandemic badly wrong. It is a sad irony, and a useful shorthand for the dysfunctional politics of expertise, that most of the talking points that Trumpian skeptics brandish—that it’s not as dangerous as flu, that there isn’t proof that masks or quarantines or travel restrictions work, that canceling events and staying home and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) can only be the product of irrational hysteria—had a few weeks earlier been the conventional wisdom of many experts and their journalistic interpreters.
The story of the crisis is not quite that of scientists who knew the answers and one political party that just wouldn’t listen to them. Rather, it is a story of fracture—of conflict and confusion, of experts earning mistrust, of each side cultivating its own class of experts to own the other’s. It is also a perverse story of how a group of self-styled truth-telling outsiders turned science’s mythology against its institutions, warping it from a tool to fight the virus into a tool to attack the establishment.
How did we get here?
Perhaps nowhere during the pandemic was the dysfunctional relationship between politics and science more apparent than in the question of masks. Starting in January, officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised the public that masks were not necessary to protect otherwise healthy people against the virus. In February and into March, the U.S. surgeon general claimed that masks “actually can increase the spread of coronavirus” because people wearing them might touch their faces more. Major news outlets generally echoed the claim that masks would not slow the spread.
As the outbreak intensified, pressure to change this guidance mounted. In a March New York Times opinion piece, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted the contradictory messaging that masks would protect health care workers but not the public. And the Asian countries that were faring well against the coronavirus had already normalized mask usage as a result of their experience with SARS. In early April, the CDC finally changed course, citing what it claimed was “new evidence.” The WHO followed suit in early June.
From the headlines and these official reversals on the mask question, it was easy to get the impression that science had done its job, swinging into gear in short order to quickly research a crucial public policy question—and rejecting an old consensus as new evidence about the effectiveness of masks emerged.
The reality was more mundane. The “new evidence” cited by the CDC was actually about presymptomatic transmission of the virus itself—a possibility that investigators speculated about, and tentatively gathered evidence behind, during the initial phase of the Covid-19 outbreak. Some of the studies the CDC cited were already six weeks old when it issued its recommendation.
As for the effectiveness of widespread mask usage in slowing the transmission of respiratory viruses, effectively nothing about this evidence had changed since the start of the pandemic. The evidence remains now what it was then: partial and conditional. It draws from either idealized laboratory conditions, or past outbreaks of other viruses in which randomized controls were not possible. In a rapidly shifting crisis like the present pandemic, it’s exceedingly difficult to establish even general correlations, much less firm causation.
In other words, the U.S. mask advisory changed not because of what the evidence plainly dictated; rather, it was because experts’ judgment of the existing evidence had shifted. And the judgment itself was not mainly scientific—it was a prudential assessment of how the evidence should guide action. But the brunt of reporting at the time suggested that the science itself had changed—that the experts remained in their familiar role as neutral interpreters of evidence.
And even in hindsight, the initial judgment may have been defensible. Facing a dire shortage of PPE, health care workers needed first priority—and that meant that the public would have to wait. But instead of communicating this message honestly, health officials and some journalists offered a series of equivocations. The WHO said there was no evidence that wearing masks “by healthy persons ... can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses,” and argued that communal mask usage “may create a false sense of security.” Vox asked, “Why are people panic purchasing face masks?” and quoted an expert who warned that masks would not protect healthy people, and might appear “overly alarmist.”
These dilatory announcements fudged the core question of whether masks protect the wearer from others or others from the wearer. And they treated the public as a kind of input to the equation—as (on the one hand) dubiously trainable vectors of viral spread who wouldn’t be able to figure out how to wear the masks properly, or (on the other) reckless processors of what information there was, who might get overconfident and take too many risks. It was all too rare to see the policy experts in charge treat the citizenry as competent adults who could be educated about proper mask usage, or who might be expected to adapt to a new mask regime on grounds of civic duty. (One might argue that this gap in frank communication between scientific leaders and the public created a vacuum that Trump himself was only too glad to fill.)
As Tufekci notes, officials could have offered the honest truth to the public as they understood it themselves. They could have easily explained that they were not yet absolutely certain whether masks work as a means of curbing the virus. They might have further laid out the real reason that they’d refrained from offering up an immediate mask advisory: that masks probably slow the spread somewhat and perhaps quite a lot, but because the country had failed to manufacture enough of them, they needed to go first to health care workers. Instead, the public was offered condescension.
When public health authorities, and those who insist on simple deference to them, finally did an about-face, they damaged their credibility and eroded public trust. Implicit in their approach was a paternalism that was easy to interpret as adversarial: They viewed the public as an obstacle to its own well-being, and were willing to dabble in light evasion in the midst of an unprecedented crisis to protect the public from itself.
The problem was hardly isolated to masks. It is indeed difficult to think of any other recent crisis that’s seen so many pronouncements made in the name of expert authority rendered so questionable so quickly.
In part, the steady reversal of expert wisdom has arisen directly from the unprecedented nature and scale of the pandemic. In other respects, though, the fast-mobilized expert consensus showed unmistakable signs of hubris. As the virus first emerged in China, for example, the WHO hemmed and hawed that there was no proof that it could spread via human-to-human transmission. For months, WHO officials maintained that it lacked reliable evidence to recommend widespread usage of masks, in part because the public was incapable of wearing them properly. Reputable journalists and even some public health authorities made similar fundamental, and hugely consequential, misreadings of the real conditions of the pandemic back in January and February. New York City’s director of public hospitals, Mitchell Katz, for instance, urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep the city’s economy operating at full throttle into March, emailing his boss that there was “no proof that closures would help stop the spread,” even as early pandemic hot spots like China and Italy had adopted closures as a means of flattening the fatal curve of coronavirus transmission. Like so many others, Katz was more worried about the public’s state of mind than its health, telling de Blasio, “Canceling large gatherings gives people the wrong impression of this illness.”
As they filtered out into the broader media, these claims were often accompanied by insinuations about the bad motives of those who dissented from them. The New Inquiry published an essay claiming that quarantines, border closures, and travel restrictions—all now central tools in the global response—had been more or less scientifically disproved, and instead were motivated by “xenophobia” and the desire for “ethnonationalist separation.” A seemingly endless series of headlines warned that the “real contagion” was fear, panic, misinformation, or stigma. Even in late February, nudge guru Cass Sunstein mused about “the cognitive bias that makes us panic about coronavirus.” (The reason for this woeful alarmist mindset, Sunstein explained, was something called “probability neglect.”)
That so many views tut-tutted as the irrational defiance of expert consensus actually became the expert consensus in the span of just a few weeks vividly suggests that we need to reexamine just how our culture talks about expertise. The problem is not mainly that the experts were wrong—that is to be expected. It is, rather, that our lead institutions and public information outlets continually treated the assurances of experts as neutral interpretations of settled science when they plainly were not. And these expert recommendations were translated into the dominant political discourse not mainly as a difficult judgment about how to act against a novel, poorly understood threat—but as a pretext to police the boundaries of polite opinion, to sneer at its dissenters.
This is a problem with a long and troubled history in infectious disease outbreaks, including Ebola and SARS. The risk communications researcher Peter Sandman describes this mode as “don’t scare the children.” Princeton scholar Laura H. Kahn, in her instructive book Who’s in Charge?, argues that political and intellectual leaders who draw on the authority of scientific expertise are perennially tempted to treat adult citizens in the contagion zone as heedless children. The perverse result of passing a political judgment off as a neutral interpretation of expertise is that it actually undermines the legitimacy of the judgment and damages the credibility of the experts.
The problem is not limited just to disease outbreaks, but pervades our discourse about science. On a remarkably broad array of issues—nuclear power, genetically modified foods, vaccines, climate change, education, the ethical implications of emerging biotechnology—the public has been offered a narrative that depicts scientific expertise as capable of adjudicating the most difficult political questions. This was the thrust of the unfortunate “March for Science,” of President Obama’s promise to place science above politics. Is it any wonder that public trust in scientific expertise has declined?
And as President Trump has shown, where trust declines, debunkers abound. Though the dysfunctional politics of expert-administered modern science claims a distinctly left-leaning valence and genealogy, it has lately found the American right to be an obliging host organism. As Daniel Sarewitz, editor of Issues in Science and Technology, dryly put it to me, “I don’t see Republicans rejecting expertise, though they do have some funny ideas about which experts to believe.”
The panel of experts that Covid skeptics have arrayed provides a case in point. Where mainstream opinion quickly converged on flattening the curve, Boris Johnson sang the praises of a herd immunity strategy, an idea that continues to hold sway among many skeptics in the United States. The Trumpian right’s treatment of masks as a symbol of tyranny claimed to garner credence from public health authority, as journalist Alex Berenson cited the initial divided view on the mask question as a telling lack of evidence. Likewise, where polite opinion early in the pandemic had held that the virus isn’t as bad as flu, Trumpian skeptics echoed that refrain as all-but-proven science, just as they’ve also sought to downplay the pandemic’s high fatality rate, theorizing vast numbers of undetected, asymptomatic cases—which would mean that society is already close to acquiring herd immunity.
Each of these views was backed by elaborate interpretations of the evidence, and propounded by a cadre of scientists and self-appointed epidemiologists. And these figures, in turn, gained rapid celebrity on the right as brave truth-tellers to a hysterical orthodoxy.
The coronavirus counter-experts fall into a few clear intellectual styles—character types, of a sort. One type is embodied in Richard Epstein and Aaron Ginn. Epstein, a legal scholar, in mid-March derided the “panic” over the virus and offered his own projection of 500 deaths in the United States—a confident, if gravely mistaken, estimate that reportedly gained no small currency within the Trump administration’s deliberations over the crisis. (Epstein later revised his original projection upward.) Ginn, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, published a detailed treatise on Medium claiming that the danger from the virus was radically overstated. The piece went viral in conservative media and eventually was taken down by Medium. (I should disclose that I am professionally acquainted with Ginn.)
We might describe such figures as representative of a very specific sort of authority, long revered as a cultural hero on the business-minded right: the back-of-the-envelope expert, the autodidact bootstrapper who claims to cut through the baloney and show you how simple it all really is. The back-of-the-envelope expert fuels the Jared Kushner model of governance-by-networking: I’ll call a couple of guys and we’ll get this sorted out over the weekend.
Closely related to the back-of-the-envelope expert is the heroic technologist, whose coronavirus avatars have been billionaire Silicon Valley savant Elon Musk and the French hydroxychloroquine prophet Didier Raoult. Musk, with his early dismissals of the virus as overhyped, his later breezy assurances that he would turn Tesla plants over to producing ventilators only if the need arose, and his grandstanding defiance of Alameda County’s closure orders to keep his main Tesla factory running, has embodied stop-panicking-we’ve-got-this faith in builders and doers.
Raoult’s hydroxychloroquine speculations were based on a study of just 36 patients. Nevertheless, he aggressively promoted the drug, in collaboration with Gregory Rigano, an attorney falsely presenting himself as a medical researcher. In short order, Rigano was telling Tucker Carlson’s audience that hydroxychloroquine had been shown to have a “100 percent cure rate against coronavirus.” The story blew up in Fox-adjacent media and was soon noticed by President Trump, and Raoult himself later appeared on The Dr. Oz Show. “I believe that ideas and theories are epidemic,” Raoult once wrote, according to The New York Times. “When they’re good, they take root.”
The final model of counter-expertise on the right is the debunker of official knowledge, who is sometimes backed by conspiratorial theories. This type is identified with figures such as John Ioannidis, the Stanford researcher who has warned that lockdowns were implemented without adequate evidence, and claimed that the fatality rate from Covid may actually be similar to seasonal flu. Though one must take care with the comparison, Ioannidis sits at the serious end of a spectrum of hermeneutic suspicion that includes at its extremity Judy Mikovits, the former virus researcher featured in the documentary Plandemic. Mikovits claims that the high incidence of coronavirus deaths stems from decades of vaccines weakening our immune systems, and that wearing masks “activates” the virus.
It is tempting for anyone who’s tried to adapt to the shifting expert consensus on Covid-19 to defend, at least in broad strokes, the “Republican war on science” narrative by arguing that the emerging cohort of counter-experts on the right are simply cranks. But most of these figures are genuine experts, albeit not all in the fields on which they opine. More to the point, they all adeptly borrow from the methodologies and rationalist rhetoric of scientific inquiry.
The back-of-the-envelope expert bears more than a surface resemblance to the Enlightenment model of skeptical inquiry pioneered by René Descartes and Francis Bacon—boldly rejecting received wisdom to arrive at the truth by stringent adherence to first principles. Admirers of Epstein’s and Ginn’s work might plausibly see them as scientific flaneurs: confident theorists who approach a vexing debate, clear away the cruft, and break it down to its essentials. If there is plainly a difference between a monograph and a manifesto, it is not one that is trivial to discern from methodology or surface features alone. Even Isaac Newton, the author of the Principia, later wrote lengthy treatises on alchemy.
This problem becomes harder when we look at the coronavirus skeptics who plainly are part of the scientific community, or at some point were. Ioannidis and Raoult have impressive scientific track records, have won praise as trailblazers, and at least at the outset of the pandemic retained wide respect. Mikovits, though now disgraced, was once a promising virus researcher.
All three figures also have an adversarial relationship with the scientific community. Mikovits seemed on the path to a bright career when she published an apparently groundbreaking article in the leading journal Science claiming a viral origin for chronic fatigue syndrome. But she later retracted it and was fired from her lab amid accusations of misconduct and data manipulation. (She claims that she’s innocent of the charges.) Ioannidis is one the key figures who revealed the replication crisis—the discovery that many lauded research findings in psychology, sociology, and medicine are flukes. Raoult speaks of a formative experience when one of his research supervisors manipulated data to conform to the prevailing view that Marseilles fever was nonfatal—a view that Raoult soon disproved. He’s called one critic of his hydroxychloroquine study a “witch hunter,” while deriding “followers” of the research consensus he’s seeking to discredit as “cheaters.” These figures all thrill at using science to slaughter sacred cows—especially science’s own.
And as at key points in their earlier careers, they may well have arrived at some useful critiques and partial truths. Ioannidis was clearly right that there was limited evidence on the effectiveness of shutdowns, and is also likely right that there are many times more undetected asymptomatic cases than diagnosed cases (though probably not as many as he has claimed). And Raoult may yet be proved partially right about the usefulness of hydroxychloroquine—there is evidence as of this writing that it may be effective in a subset of severe Covid-19 cases that experience a “cytokine storm,” in which the virus induces the immune system to mistakenly attack the body.
Mikovits is the most telling of the Covid skeptics. Plandemic depicts her as a persecuted truth-teller daring to speak out against a corrupt scientific orthodoxy. (Anthony Fauci features as a key villain in the film and in Mikovits’s counter-theories about the virus.) Her book Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science, published in April, offers as an epigraph Galileo’s reply, according to lore, to his Vatican inquisitors after being condemned as a heretic—“Eppur si muove” (And yet it moves). In anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s foreword to the book, he expands on the alleged Galileo parallel, and describes Mikovits as a “revolutionary” offering “censored and ‘dangerous’ science,” who suffered a “lynching” at the hands of the establishment. Coronavirus skeptics on the right have eagerly embraced this image of counter-experts as martyrs, heroes standing up to the Inquisition—and the counter-experts themselves have largely embraced the role.
Imagine a bright, inquisitive student, starstruck with the sciences but disenchanted with progressivism. (There are many such students.) After the student’s been duly immersed in the heroic myths not only of Galileo but also of Clarence Darrow, of Socrates and Hume, of NASA engineers sketching out the blueprint for a lunar mission on a notepad, it’s not difficult to imagine how he or she might see the coronavirus debate following the same basic power coordinates—and drawing far greater inspiration from the skeptics proclaiming hope than the experts prophesying doom.
If we are to follow the idea of the Trumpian right’s relationship to science as something like that of an overeager engineering sophomore—or of scientific gadflies like the late climate-change skeptic S. Fred Singer—then we need a deeper understanding of how and why this relationship developed.
The relationship between Trump supporters and traditionalist conservatives is fraught, but we can hear in the current right clear echoes of the conservative movement’s long-standing caution against purely scientific governance. We have long and rightly been wary of expert hubris, of the potential for science to metastasize into grand social experiments, or to become a rationale for tyranny. Built into conservatism is a wariness of not only the technical but the political power granted by scientific rationality.
History abounds with examples to ground this concern: the eugenics movement, born and bred in the United States before being adopted by Germany; the rational-planning horrors of the Soviets; the technocratic optimism of 1950s and 1960s America; the drive that persists to this day to use biotechnology to eliminate weakness and the weak.
The last half-century has also seen a gradual but stark divorce between conservatives and key scientific institutions. Recent studies show enormous gaps in political identification in several scientific disciplines—particularly in sociology, psychology, and anthropology, where conservatives are a tiny minority.
It is not possible to offer a concise history of this divorce, or one that does not wade into culture-war battles. But we might say that the self-understanding of the modern university system has shifted in a way that produces ever more mutual suspicion between itself and conservatives. Intellectuals on the right have become increasingly disposed to act like alienated outsiders in relation to the lead institutions of public inquiry because in important respects they actually are. The perception and the reality fuel each other, becoming mutually reinforcing.
But the most important element in the rise of the Trumpian, Galilean right is the growing role that appeals to science have played in national politics. Science scholar Sarewitz argues that the conventional view of the proper relationship of science to politics—that it can adjudicate ordinary partisan disputes—traces to the 1960s and 1970s, when science not only revealed a series of environmental problems, but was mobilized as a rationale for the liberal-left’s preferred policy solutions to those problems.
The later debate over climate change further cemented the marriage of science to progressive politics, and its accelerating divorce from the right. Decades of “fruitless fighting over the science and politics of reducing risk by making energy more expensive,” Sarewitz writes, have “so utterly alienated conservatives from the very idea of climate change that a program of energy innovation that would once have been potentially appealing to many ... now risks being viewed on the Right as a Trojan horse.” This dynamic was reinforced by a series of debates—over embryonic stem cell research, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and cloning—in which liberal partisans claimed the mantle of science for their side.
The product of these dynamics has not been, as we are often told, a Republican rejection of science itself—of its methodologies, its hunger for knowledge of the world, its desire for mastery over nature, its admiration for the excellence on display in rational inquiry. Rather, it has been the adoption of an outsider’s stance to the current scientific establishment—to its particular institutions, and to the pronouncements of its expert class.
This counter-establishment, such as it is, is far from rotten on the whole. It encompasses robust work within philosophy and political theory—and within the lay world of letters, it aims to revive a neglected tradition of Western thought that views science neither as unitarily determinative of politics nor as austerely removed from it. The more serious critiques of uncritical deference to expertise on the right seek to situate scientific inquiry more as an exercise of human capacities than a cosmic intrusion on human affairs.
But the counter-establishment has also been, inevitably, scooped up by the culture wars. Conservatives are well aware of the political power of the mantra “science says”—and to some, it has proved too tempting to resist. Some conservative thinkers have indeed sought to explicitly turn the narrative on its head, arguing that it is really progressives who are anti-science because they oppose nuclear power and GMOs, eat organic foods, believe in New Age spiritualism, and repudiate vaccines. But more often the counter-experts on the right flank of the science culture wars have set about cultivating a body of contrary evidence—particularly on climate change—to sow doubt, seeking to try to beat science on its own playing field.
These trends are by now long-standing. And the Trump era has given all but free rein to the right’s adoption of the Galilean stance. Perhaps this was inevitable: It is the clearest model available in our culture’s scientific mythology, however tenuous a relationship it may bear to history, of a figure dissenting from mainstream scientific views, one who sees himself as persecuted by a corrupt orthodoxy to which he is the rightful heir. The Galileo myth is also continuous with a long history of scientific gadflies who see themselves carrying forward the legacy of the Enlightenment model of skeptical inquiry: the radical individual freed from the oppression of institutions, in something of a funhouse-mirror image of the real work of science. The problem we’re now seeing, however, is that the Galileo model now often eventuates not only in counterinstitutional inquiry, but also in bad science. Though the Galileo posture is a response to a genuine alienation—and some real persecution—it is also an all too convenient pose.
And it’s crucial to recognize how the debunking style of the latter-day Galilean pose departs from the earlier modes of opposition to the scientific establishment. Whereas those were attempts—sometimes robust, sometimes cynical—to establish a set of countervailing scientific institutions, the Galilean mode is a free-floating anti-institutionalism. It is, to cite an old saw, the dilemma of the dog chasing a car: It wouldn’t know what to do if it caught it.
President Trump’s relationship to science during the pandemic offers a sobering instance of just how badly things can go once the dog catches the car. Even now that they hold the reins of power over crucial elements of the scientific establishment, he and his defenders have evinced an inability to understand how to relate to the scientific discourse in anything other than an aggrieved outsider’s role.
The president’s personal psychodrama with many of those experts is an obvious illustration. With sporadic exceptions, he seems capable of only two orientations toward the cadre of CDC, FDA, and NIH scientists under his command: prodding them to offer fawning praise and deference, or (when he’s given counsel running contrary to his preferred and erratic course of action) fuming and firing. Anthony Fauci is the most notable public health expert caught in this crossfire—not only because of his prominence but because throughout the pandemic the president has vacillated between these orientations toward him on a near-daily basis.
The leaders of the #FireFauci movement on the right clearly take their rhetorical cues from Trump. They also do not recognize any stable truth other than whatever serves to counter the corrupt experts in the moment. Their protests are blithe to the possibility that the president might be capable of engaging Fauci not by deferring to him as an unelected leader, but by using him as an experienced adviser to the help the president make his own decisions. The only option is the passion play of the boardroom reality show.
Still, while Trump may now loom large over these controversies, it’s important to recall that feuds with particular experts are rooted in a dynamic that runs deeper into the administration and the current governing class on the right.
Consider a story from the lead-up to the pandemic. The Washington Post reports that in January 2018, a team of science diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing repeatedly visited the now-infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology. They cabled the State Department to express serious concerns about lax safety standards at the lab—and specifically warned about the risks of a coronavirus from bats leading to a new SARS-like pandemic. The Post reports that “the embassy officials were calling for more U.S. attention to this lab and more support for it, to help it fix its problems.”
The administration apparently never acted—whether to provide support to the lab or take any other measure to address this warning. Instead, once the pandemic had hit, Trump officials canceled an NIH grant for American scientists who had conducted research in partnership with scientists at the Wuhan lab.
Much has been made about this cancellation as a sign of the administration’s hostility to science. But what is more notable is the administration’s apparent failure not only to act on the warning prior to the pandemic, but to leverage the relationship of NIH scientists with their Chinese counterparts—whether to lend institutional support suggested by the diplomats, learn more about the work being conducted at the lab, or exert pressure on the lab to improve its safety standards or even shift its focus away from deadlier viruses. With such approaches, there might well have been a credible reason to threaten to end the funding as a final pressure tactic—and to actually carry through on that threat. But from what we know, the administration simply skipped straight to cutting off funding after the pandemic was already under way.
For all its talk of swamp-draining, the Trump administration has had no serious idea of what to do with the institutions of scientific inquiry other than neglect them. Trump officials simply ignored large swaths of the federal science bureaucracy until events forced them into view. Once that happened, the only mode the administration seemed to understand was that of a hostile takeover. The scientific gadfly can serve as an irritant—and science often needs to be irritated out of its complacency, its reflexive expectation of cultural and political deference. But the moment the gadfly is put in charge, it has little idea what to do, no vision of how to leverage the institution to reform it, much less renew it.
My colleague Brendan Foht has observed that the prevailing way our culture has talked about science during the pandemic is not as a tool for attacking the problem, but as an instrument for managing perceptions. We check virus-tracking sites such as Worldometer in much the same way investors look at the stock market; we eagerly share the latest study that shows our side is scientific and the other is emotive.
The irony is not only that the Trumpian right co-opted the early expert lines that proffered tut-tutting skepticism—science shows it’s not as bad as flu, the real contagion is fear—but that it became even more deeply invested in invoking science as a partisan scorekeeper. This is largely what lies behind the obsession on the right with debating the virus’s fatality rate. As Foht writes, knowing whether the rate is 1.0 percent or 0.5 percent does not tell us anything useful about when we can reopen restaurants, or how to do so safely. All it might tell us is that the crisis is actually imaginary—that, like the geocentrists of yore, we have had the wool pulled over our eyes.
In these corrosive, shallow, interminable debates about science, what is most sorely missing is any talk of judgment. It is impossible to understand how experts arrive at their advice, or how leaders use it wisely, apart from the exercise of judgment. Though we might think this point is obvious, it is belied by the common image of science as a neutral, even godlike encounter with eternal, capital-T Truth. With the benefit of a true understanding of the role of judgment in expertise, we would not need the deferential language of “following the science,” the condescension of being told our disagreement with the experts is because of cognitive bias, or the feeling of earth-moving scandal when experts get things wrong.
We do not need a radical cognitive overhaul to imagine the role that judgment should play in science, for the pandemic has brought it plainly into view. We are now familiar with the multiple levels of assumptions that go into models of the pandemic, the discretion required both to create them and to apply them wisely. And despite the claims of many state governors to be merely doing what the science tells them, it should be obvious to any observer that translating the fragmentary evidence, and the conflicting advice of experts, into action has required extraordinary acts of prudence. It is the soundness of judgment, not the degree of deference to or defiance of experts, that’s served as the critical dividing line between wise leadership and disaster artistry.
Our politics is beset by the tempting myth that science is an oracle, a referee for the deepest questions about what we owe to our fellows, our families, future generations, and the natural world. This myth has offered us only two explicit options for how to relate to expertise: deference or debunking. In turn, it has left us unable to hear in others’ invocations of science anything other than smug attempts to gain power over us, or brutish refusal to accept the obvious truth.
The pandemic has shown us the perils of science shaming. But the debunking style it has produced in reaction may pose a graver danger. The Galilean right senses, not without reason, that invocations of science often function as a mask for social, rhetorical, and political power. The trouble is that instead of forging a more humane relationship with science, gadflies on the right have decided to steal that power for themselves. Entranced by a story about how they have triumphed over the slavishness of groupthink, the Galileans have only become more manipulable, more credulous, more deluded.
In an insightful 2013 essay, M. Anthony Mills drew on G.K. Chesterton’s claim that it is not quite right to view a conspiracy theorist as someone with a flaw in his reasoning. Talk to a committed anti-vaxxer or just-the-flu-er, and you may well be flummoxed at the discovery that he has a better command of the research than you do, that he can answer and dodge and weave until you quit in exhaustion. He may even be capable of “saving the appearances”—of offering an explanation for all the observable facts. “The problem,” Mills writes, “is not so much a flaw in his reasoning but that his whole reasoning process has become unmoored. ‘The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.’”
The trouble with the Galilean right is not that its partisans have lost their reason—really they have it in perverse excess—but rather that in their war against the establishment they have lost their sense. Judgment has given way to technique, coherence to deconstruction, the picture of the whole has broken apart into skillful scribbles. Cast out of the hall of scientific power, intoxicated and giddy, they discover that science has given them the tools to blow it up.