America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    America on the Brink

Scientific Authority and the Democratic Narrative

How did we arrive at this crisis of scientific authority?

Jason Blakely

Participants in the 2018 March for Science, Washington, DC; Bob Kom/Alamy Live News.

In the second book of his enduring study of the early republic, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville began his discussion of what he called “the influence of democracy on the action of intellect in the United States” by noting the distinctive tendency of the individual to appeal to the “exercise of his own understanding alone.” Practical and pragmatic, trusting in the authority of their senses, thinking like good Cartesians without having read Descartes, Americans, Tocqueville continued, “readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding.” Such self-reliance, he believed, was laudable in many respects, but it had an obvious, and potentially dangerous, corollary: Americans “fall to denying what they cannot comprehend.”11xAlexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (New York, NY: Vintage Classics, 1990), vol. II, ch. 1. Originally published 1840.

Mostly what Jacksonian-era Americans denied, according to Tocqueville, was “whatever is extraordinary” and “whatever is supernatural.”22xIbid. He noted as well that Americans were as respectful of learning, the fine arts, and science as one might expect of a pragmatic, commercially oriented people, even if the practical and applied sciences counted for more to them than the theoretical ones. Following Tocqueville’s lead, one might argue that Americans for the most part have long maintained a tempered respect for the authority of science, an attitude that has generally contributed to the country’s material progress and well-being.

That attitude has recently been tested. On a range of issues—from climate change and vaccination to evolution and nutrition—America now teems with popular movements whose central aim is the rejection of one or another scientific finding or position. COVID-19 has further dramatized these tensions, driving antipathies between scientific experts and the sundry movements commonly referred to as “populist” out onto the streets.

Many of last spring’s protests brought together a strange mix of citizens united by their rejection of measures recommended by medical scientists to curb the spread of the disease. This assortment of the discontented included conservative operatives, suburban entrepreneurs, paramilitarized nationalists, unemployed wage workers, and antivaxxers. One of the enduring images from those early days of the pandemic was a photograph taken in Denver of a lockdown protestor, in a star-spangled shirt, hanging out the window of a Dodge truck (a “Land of the Free” sign draped over the passenger-side door), staring down a medical worker in full scrubs and surgical mask standing in silent counterprotest in the middle of the road. The image struck a chord, circulating widely as a symbol of the confrontation between populist anger and scientific authority.

The same confrontation was also evident in conservative media. In a highly controversial series of posts, First Things magazine editor Rusty Reno exceeded his own usual hyperbole to denounce public health recommendations on curtailing business and all kinds of assembly, including religious services. “We live in a technocratic social order,” Reno fumed, condemning an “expert class…[that] impose[s] draconian measures of restriction and control.” Reno went on to quote the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who has argued that the pandemic exposes the tendency of modern societies to value nothing more than “bare life” and “survival.”33xR.R. Reno, “Coronavirus Diary: New York, May 12,” First Things, May 13, 2020, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/05/coronavirus-diary-new-york-may-12.

But in subsequent weeks, the tension between surviving the coronavirus and other rival goods triggered an equally powerful reaction from the American left. This came dramatically to the fore after the murder of George Floyd and the mass mobilization of huge numbers of Black Lives Matter protestors across the country. In a stark contrast with their earlier rebuke of right-wing populists for flouting public health guidelines, many health professionals now seemed to countenance a less restrictive approach to social distancing and public assembly. In early June, more than 1,200 health and medical experts signed a letter maintaining their opposition to a “permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders,” but cited the “pervasive and lethal force of white supremacy” as an overriding threat to the “health specifically of black people”—and thus as justification for public protests.44xAaron Greiner et al., University of Washington consortium of infectious disease specialists, public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders, “Open Letter Advocating for an Anti-Racist Public Health Response to Demonstrations against Systemic Injustice Occurring during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” June 5, 2020, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Jyfn4Wd2i6bRi12ePghMHtX3ys1b7K1A/view.

In a widely cited follow-up piece in The Atlantic, Julia Marcus of Harvard Medical School and Gregg Gonsalves of the Yale School of Public Health reasoned that epidemiologists must “maximize the health of a population across all aspects of life,” arguing that “the health implications of maintaining the status quo of white supremacy” were “too grave to ignore, even with the potential for an increase in coronavirus transmission.”55xJulia Marcus and Gregg Gonsalves, “Public-Health Experts Are Not Hypocrites,” The Atlantic, June 11, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/public-health-experts-are-not-hypocrites/612853/.

To observers on the right, such responses only intensified the sense that scientific authority was being politicized in favor of some causes and not others. A representative response was voiced by Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, who remarked on how the “moral scolding ceased as soon as elite-favored protests began taking place.” The result, according to Vance, would be a further erosion of “trust in our country’s experts.”66xJ.D. Vance (@JDVance1), “I am still amazed…,” Twitter, June 3, 2020, https://twitter.com/jdvance1/status/1268163828476448774?lang=en.

More recently, some public health specialists have also expressed discomfort at what appear to be conflicting standards. As Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor specializing in biosocial science, told the New York Times this summer, “We allowed thousands of people to die alone. We buried people by Zoom. Now all of a sudden we are saying, never mind?”77xMichael Powell, “Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What,” New York Times, July 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/us/Epidemiologists-coronavirus-protests-quarantine.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage.

How did we arrive at this crisis of scientific authority? And is there a way to repair the damaged relationship between democratic deliberation and science?

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).