People no longer care what government or ‘science’ tells them about Covid-19.
Thank you, President Biden. Your administration has achieved herd immunity. Alas, it has nothing to do with your promise to “shut down the virus” or vaccinate all 330 million Americans. What you’ve done has long been thought even more impossible than finding a cure for Covid. You’ve immunized the American people against politics. Give this man the Nobel Peace Prize.
This happy news emerged from a question inside the recent Associated Press-NORC poll, which asked, “Thinking about the problems facing the United States and the world today, which problems would you like the government to be working on in the year 2022?”
Naturally some 68% said the economy—with the worst inflation since 1982—needed some thought. But astonishingly, the percentage who want the government to work on Covid-19 is 33%, a 20-point drop from a year ago.
Partisans whose job it is to stand in front of a microphone and explain Mr. Biden’s policies will say, “See, we’re winning. Our policies have removed Covid as a daily concern.”
Umm, no. Identified U.S. Omicron infections are arriving at hundreds of thousands a day. Sagas abound of burned-out hospital workers and depleted workforces. Holiday air travel was a historic nightmare. The promised supply of rapid antigen tests is today’s equivalent of the bridge to nowhere. Cloth masks worked, until they didn’t. School’s out—forever.
It was remarkable how often one saw people interviewed while standing in lines to be tested say: “I don’t understand how this can be happening after two years.” People are flying the pandemic white flag: They’ve stopped caring what the government, the politicians or “science” is telling them about Covid.
The Covid pandemic is altering many multiples of behavioral patterns, and one of the biggest, for which we should thank the virus, is the death of certitude.
From Covid’s start in 2020, public and scientific authorities across the world said: “Trust us. We know what we are doing.” We now see that this unshakable, public-facing certitude was false.
Today, it’s fair to say that no one but the hopelessly credulous believe much of anything Mr. Biden, Jen Psaki, Anthony Fauci or Rochelle Walensky says about Covid and Omicron. The list of doubted authorities worldwide could extend to the horizon.
My purpose is not to discredit public authority or science. We need both. Public authorities in 2020 cleared the regulatory path for Operation Warp Speed, which let private-sector scientists develop protective vaccines. My intention is to re-establish a necessary virtue that looks altogether lost to public life and its scientific representatives: intellectual modesty.
Political leaders try to convey the impression of control over events, insofar as most are always on thin ice with the public. With the pandemic, the most visible faces of U.S. authority across two years—Donald Trump, Andrew Cuomo, Joe Biden—became caricatures of the in-control public figure. In their world, we were always winning.
At the center of this collapse of public confidence sits science, which has a lot to answer for. The problem is not the process of scientific discovery as understood for centuries. The problem is “science,” a politicized totem now used routinely to silence legitimate challenge, for example regarding what happened in Wuhan.
Science triumphalism didn’t begin with the National Institutes of Health’s Anthony Fauci. Science as a political weapon originated with the battle over climate policy.
Disputes among scientists can get famously intense, but at some point in the past decade, the impatient proponents of climate-change policy enlisted the media to suppress dissent. Social-media companies, whose employees surely self-regard as rigorous STEM graduates, enabled the intellectual silencing. Dissent, which is perhaps the most honorable political tradition in free systems, was demoted into oblivion as “misinformation”—again with mass-media support.
How can we be winning if a significant portion of the U.S. population has come to believe that the representations of science about climate and Covid are mostly, to pick a word, disinformation?
Every week, the New England Journal of Medicine publishes the results of clinical studies involving myriad medical problems, including Covid-19. The NEJM exists because few of the diseases explored in its pages are ever “solved.” The nuances of medical treatment, which is to say science, get debated in subsequent articles and letters.
Of its nature, public health is authoritarian, ordering the masses into compliance for some larger social good, such as food-handling hygiene. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, now fitfully run by the White House-compliant Dr. Walensky, occupies a gray realm between issuing directives and serving as a scientific clearinghouse. During the pandemic, serious scientists—in and out of public life—have let their status as discoverers of important but ever-contingent knowledge be hijacked by the authoritarians of certitude. Omicron has ended their reign.
Entering our third year with Covid, the AP-NORC result effectively means some two-thirds of the population is telling its government, “Thanks for nothing.” That is an overstatement, but not by much. And it won’t get better until doubt and dissent get more respect than they have now.