December 3, 2021

TRUST: Science Blah-Blah Horseshit is the Universal Language of Covid: And it’s why we need to be able to trust institutions.

I’m probably like most people: My trust waxes and wanes depending on what the institution does. Trust has to be earned.

That’s why I think the CDC’s missteps during the pandemic have outsized importance. I’ll highlight two highly visible and much-criticized moments: The CDC’s early-pandemic statements questioning the efficacy of masks and Dr. Fauci’s admission to the New York Times that he adjusted his statements about what level of resistance was necessary for herd immunity based partly on what he thought the public was “ready to hear”.

I think I understand the logic behind these decisions. Early in the pandemic, the CDC was worried about people buying up already-scarce N95 masks that were needed for medical workers; there was also a concern that “reduces the likelihood of transmission” would be interpreted as “makes you completely safe”. Regarding herd immunity, Dr. Fauci was worried that if he said we needed to get to 90 percent, it would trigger what I’ll call a “well then fuck everything” response that would make people less likely to get vaccinated. I get that these decisions were made with several factors in mind, and I think they were made with good intentions.

But I also think they were extremely wrong. The effects of these decisions went far beyond whatever short-term confusion they might have caused; the main effect was to degrade the CDC’s credibility. . . .

There’s a similar problem regarding the mainstream media (which I’ll define as the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, CNN and a few others). There’s a debate right now — mostly pointedly between Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan V. Last — about how much the mainstream media can be trusted. Sullivan argues that their credibility is basically gone; Last thinks that they’re about the same level of imperfect that they’ve always been. I’m basically in between the two; I think the Times and Post are the worst they’ve been in my lifetime, but they’re not complete bird cage liner just yet. Still, the change is significant; the difference between a Times I trust 90 percent and a Times I trust 75 percent is the difference between me using them as my go-to source for information and me seeking other sources for that role.

In the past year or two, we saw a major push for institutions to reflect a particular ideology; many people argued that institutions preaching neutrality should instead “take on a social justice role”. It happened in some corners of the media, several organizations, and many universities. Scientific touchstones like the American Medical Association and Science-Based Medicine had weird moments. The ACLU’s purpose seems to have dramatically changed. The result has been a degrading of institutions’ credibility, both individually and collectively. To the extent than institutions have accepted this change in purpose, people no longer trust them to provide the truth. That’s rational, because an institution that declares that its purpose is to pursue “social justice” as defined by a narrow set of activists has disavowed the pursuit of truth and declared loyalty to a predetermined set of beliefs.

I feel that institutions chronically undervalue their credibility.

Indeed. Plus, from the comments:

Impressive results lead to credibility. You have no choice but to respect an institution capable of the Manhattan project or Apollo missions. Even if you disagree with every aspect of it. A lot of people alive today probably can’t think of a single impressive thing they’ve seen a modern institution do.

The other credibility killer is that the public now recognizes these institutions as made up of distinct and flawed humans. The NYT is now just a bunch of people on twitter posting dumb shit about their lives. If they really wanted to restore credibility the first step would be to ban all reporters from having public social media accounts. The correct places for those opinions is the opinion pages. Of course that will never happen.

Emphasis added.

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