It's a matter of trust
The phrase "you're entitled to your opinion but not your own facts" feels like an anachronism these days. In the current social and political moment, people seem to be entitled to both.
If we could all simply agree upon a clear set of facts, the correct course of action may seem obvious. But we cannot agree — even about a global pandemic that has caused mass suffering and death.
The problem is that most of us are not scientists and even fewer are epidemiologists. So much of our opinions about how to respond to COVID-19 are not based on firsthand knowledge. They're a reflection of who we trust.
A recent back-and-forth with a reader crystallized this for me. He felt vaccines are unsafe and cited self-reported data showing that thousands of people had claimed to have side effects from the vaccine. I retorted that those reports were not verified and cited a study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine showing that the vaccinated in Israel faced a significantly lower risk of those same side effects (let alone side effects unique to COVID-19) than those infected with COVID-19.
We did not persuade each other, which wasn't a surprise to me as arguments are more likely to harden convictions than change them. But just as relevant was that we trusted different sources. I sent him a piece from Nieman Journalism Lab; he sent me a clip of Tucker Carlson and links to sources and websites I had never heard of. Neither of us were impressed.
While the divide between Democrats and Republicans is well tread and certainly relevant, institutional trust or lack thereof seems to be another of our most glaring fissures.
In one camp you have the people who probably have uttered the phrase "trust the science." They probably sheltered dutifully last year during the shutdown and were quick to get inoculated. Then you have those who are distrustful. They may be more likely to rewatch the "Loose Change" 9/11 conspiracy theory documentary than read a New Yorker magazine and have long avoided the doctor and immunizations at all costs.
These groups share little in common and sometimes resent each other for it.
It is easy to talk down to the distrustful and call them selfish, delusional or ill-informed. Even though I lean more toward the trust than distrust side of the ledger and believe that vaccine hesitancy has had catastrophic consequences, it's good to show a little empathy and understanding every once in a while.
Repudiations of intellectual consensus are often not without merit.
In his Chris Hayes's prescient book "Twilight of the Elites," he writes that failures like ill-conceived wars in the Middle East and a financial crisis brought about by irresponsible financial speculation and predatory lending likely augered a distrustful turn in American politics that had been building since the era of Vietnam and Watergate. Meanwhile, from choosing romantic partners from their same economic demographic to making sure their kids go to the best colleges, elites may be gaming the system to a larger degree than ever— leading to more resentment and distrust. Not to mention, wealth inequality in America is nearing world-historical highs (according to the research of economist Thomas Picketty).
"It's clear that we're in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism," Hayes wrote. "We are in the midst of a broad and devastating crisis of authority."
This problem has only worsened since those words were written about a decade ago. It's telling to me that uninsured Americans under 65 are the least likely group to be vaccinated, according to polling conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, while college graduates are among the most likely. The deserved or undeserved "winners" of society have more reasons to trust the intellectual consensus.
Also, having a skeptical eye, even about science, is reasonable — particularly when there is still a fair amount we don't know about COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic the institutions have at times misfired.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced early on in the pandemic that healthy people did not need to wear masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, simply trusting the CDC likely would have led people to enter a grocery store maskless and risk infection. The agency also overstated the risk of surface and outdoor infections, and it appears that infections among the vaccinated are more prevalent than initially thought. I register these criticisms with a little empathy for the CDC as well — providing guidance about a peculiar virus seems massively challenging and the facts on the ground are ever changing. I also want to stress that the facts I trust point in an overwhelming direction that we should do our best to slow the spread of COVID-19 to save lives.
I'm not quite sure where all this leaves us. But there are three points I believe to be true:
1. Everyone should wear masks when appropriate and get vaccinated.
2. It's incumbent upon our political, scientific and cultural leaders — as well as the media — to do a better job earning trust.
3. Those who are quick to trust should reflect on how their own biases and privileges may have cemented this tendency and acknowledge that our institutional elites get it wrong too and that their assertions deserve scrutiny.
You draw your own conclusions.
Corey Buchanan is the assistant editor of the West Linn Tidings and Wilsonville Spokesman.
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