As a physician, as someone who has been trained in and believes in science, I share the frustrations of all my colleagues who are faced with members of the public choosing not to wear masks and denying the realities of a pandemic which has already killed almost a quarter million of Americans alone, devastated countries and economies throughout the world, and which is once again surging to create even more misery and suffering for its victims.
Masks have become a flashpoint in our culture wars: either as a commitment to public health or an infringement of basic liberties, the mask encapsulates the politicization of science. Until we have an effective therapy available to all (and as of today, 20-40% of people surveyed claim they will not get vaccinated even if offered the option), it is our behavior that will ultimately determine Covid-19’s toll.
Beyond the failure of our government to provide effective leadership, there has been a lack of consistent communication from non-partisan experts, whose messages have been marginalized and credibility undermined by those in our current administration. President Trump has weaponized scientific uncertainty along with exploiting a distrust of science that has long preceded his tenure in office.
While distrust is now more common in those on the political right, for decades conservatives viewed science favorably, seeing the benefits of science aiding our economy. However, when scientists began to look at the detrimental effects on the environment of fossil fuels and exploitation of resources to fuel further growth, the resultant regulations alienated people committed to free-market principles. Trust in science paradoxically declined most among the most educated conservatives, who were able to find the limitations in the data and could exploit the inevitable uncertainties. The inevitable and necessary self-corrections that are the hallmark of scientific process reinforce the skepticism of all those who inherently distrust experts.
In the book “The Death of Expertise”, the author Tom Nichols describes anti-intellectualism, particularly in the USA, as rejecting science has become a proxy for personal empowerment and autonomy. “Masks immediately became part of a partisan controversy whether to believe in science and trust experts” lamented Nichols, “in the growing narcissistic tenor of a society whose battle cry is ‘You are not the boss of me!’” He goes on to say, “Some people would rather die than wear a mask. Once beliefs become fused to your sense of personal identity, they become very difficult to shake.”
As people have been segmented by the media in being offered “news” that reflects and enforces their points of view, and social media platforms magnify and thrive in the divisions in our society, reasoned debate becomes near impossible. Our current political divides are characterized not only by disagreements with the opposing party’s views, but also by frank contempt for the people espousing those views.
As the human instinct is to be tribalistic, once we pick a team, it’s very hard to switch. The mask has become like the jersey of our favorite team; in this case, the uniform of the left. The mixed messages from experts at the beginning of our epidemic certainly haven’t helped the confusion of the public. Why could people go to the store, but not to schools and churches? Why couldn’t kids play sports if people could go to rallies? Lot of people don’t know anyone personally who had died of Covid, but know countless whose livelihoods have been destroyed.
In a sense, the pandemic has likely alienated many Americans who already feel that the “experts” don’t understand their lives. Watching friends and colleagues fighting on the front lines of the epidemic, risking their own lives as well as their families, it’s difficult to not feel anger and frustration with those who deny the need for public health measures to keep us all safe. It wasn’t until a CNN reporter, Fareed Zakaria, offered the other side’s perspective that it became easier to at least grasp the thinking of those who question and deny the message we are trying to send.
“Imagine you are an American who works with his hands – a truck driver, a construction worker – and you just lost your job because of the lockdowns. What is it like to be one of those 36 million jobless Americans and turn on your TV, only to hear the medical experts, the journalists explain that we must keep our economy closed?” Zakaria points out that these experts not only have jobs, but are in even greater demand. Emphasizing how worthless and scared the newly jobless might feel, he asks, “Is it hard to understand why people like this might be skeptical of the experts?”
Since we cannot have economic recovery until the virus is contained, it’s irrational to defy the public health advice, but belief is not rational. To those who distrust science, (something for which the media must also take a share of the blame) the perception that experts view them as idiots only reinforces their alienation when their behavior is pointed out to be moronic. There is a futility in trying to shame people into changing their behavior.
Clearly, there is a need to listen to one another, and to communicate more effectively than we have been doing. It’s easy to be condescending or authoritarian when presenting a message you are convinced is a 100% right. This method has clearly failed. We have to find a better way to make our points. It may have to start with recognition that we are not speaking to the devil, but to another human being who is likely as scared as we are. We have to find a bridge to reach each other. Our lives depend on it.