The controversy over the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria medicine, as a treatment for coronavirus patients — with President Donald Trump and some advisers touting the benefits of the drug and medical professionals, including top infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci urging caution — exemplified a key aspect of the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic: the question of trust in experts and their wisdom.
Clashes between the experts and politicians, activists, and commentators who are skeptical of the experts’ advice have been present throughout the often-bitter polemics about the best way to handle the disease. Momentous decisions to implement quarantines and shelter-in-place policies that have upended daily life and devastated the economy have been based on experts’ projections 100,000 to 240,000 Americans might die without such measures. Yet to many people, the lockdowns are an extreme and tyrannical response to what is, so far, a fairly small number of deaths, mainly among the elderly.
Rush Limbaugh, the king of right-wing talk radio, has railed against “the expert class” on his show. “We didn’t elect a president to defer to a bunch of health experts that we don’t know. And how do we know they’re even health experts?” he declared the other day, suggesting that the experts are being treated with deference simply because “they wear white lab coats” and serve in government institutions and that they have never undergone any “job assessment.”
To most middle-class Americans, this sounds like the ranting of a drunk in a bar. But Limbaugh has a large following of people who deeply distrust “experts” and “elites.”
The issue is complicated by the fact that experts are frequently mistaken — not because they are incompetent or ill-informed, but because their assessments are based on incomplete and rapidly evolving information, especially when dealing with a new problem such as COVID-19. Even the revered Dr. Fauci said in January that the coronavirus was not a threat to most Americans.
The claim that the seasonal flu should be a bigger concern, for which Trump and a number of right-wing pundits have been lambasted, was also made by a number of medical experts a little over two months ago, based on assumptions that later turned out to be incorrect — for instance, that asymptomatic people infected by the virus were very unlikely to transmit it. (The difference, of course, is that Trump and Limbaugh were making such claims when they were already shown to be wrong.)
On other issues, expert opinions can conflict. Just the other day, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that most people in areas with high infection rates wear cloth face coverings in public to curb the spread of the virus. The CDC said that the advice was based on new information on asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission; but the shift also reflects ongoing debate about the value of face masks outside medical settings.
Experts are not perfect. But populists who sneer at experts display a mindset of militant ignorance that refuses to consider complicated facts. They point to the fact that past predictions of massive death tolls from illnesses such as SARS, the swine flu, or mad cow disease did not materialize as proof that the experts are alarmists who don’t know what they’re talking about, even though in many cases mass casualties were prevented by drastic measures taken based on expert advice.
Experts would do well to remember that they may be wrong and that smugness is off-putting. But the anti-expert backlash is based on a far more dangerous form of arrogance.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.