“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams said before he became the second president of the United States. He finished his sentence thus: “whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
What is so remarkable today is how readily facts are translated as mere opinions. This trend has exploded as our nation undergoes great changes: immigration at levels that soon will place foreign-born Americans at record levels, the impact of the internet and of Facebook, the #MeToo movement, the rise of the “nones” as a religious identity, and most recently, Black Lives Matter. It’s a breeding ground for polarization over cultural, racial, religious and political issues.
The explosion of COVID-19 has further heightened anxiety. Consider the following: The United States holds 4.3 percent of the world’s population, but it’s home to 23.5 percent of the world’s pandemic deaths. Florida alone has more COVID-19 cases than most countries; and only four countries have experienced more deaths than the state of New York. As this is written, coronavirus cases are skyrocketing in nearly 40 U.S. states, surging especially in the southern and western states of Texas, Arizona, and California.
Clearly, the world’s richest and most powerful nation has been making deadly mistakes. One is the widespread disrespect for science and for facts.
So dire has criticism of science and expertise become that recently four former heads of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (who served for a time as CDC directors under presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama) have taken the extraordinary step of publishing public criticism of Trump administration officials for taking “political potshots” at science, all the while “sowing confusion and mistrust at a time when the American people need leadership, expertise and clarity.”
The respected Pew Research Center reports that “only 27 percent of Republicans trust scientists and only 31 percent trust medical science.” Distrust exists among Democrats too, though in much smaller percentages. Little wonder perhaps that mask-wearing and social-distancing recommendations are widely disregarded.
It is regrettable that our national political leaders refuse to lead effectively in appreciating fact-based solutions. To bring the matter front and center, why not devote one of the three scheduled presidential debates to a discussion on the nature of science, its uses and its role in finding solutions to public issues? Candidates should clarify their views on these matters — and the public needs to hear them.
The distrust of science has roots deeper than our present political dysfunction. Since not long after the Enlightenment world in which the American Founders grew up, strong threads of anti-intellectualism have pervaded American life. As understood by Richard Hofstadter, in his “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” intellectuals are seen as pretentious, conceited and snobbish, and “very likely immoral, dangerous and subversive.” Those harboring such attitudes challenge scientific experts on issues such as human-induced climate change, nuclear treaties, the beneficial uses of vaccines and world trade and world health organizations. Frequently they dismiss the COVID-19 virus as a hoax. Consequently, reason, logic and standards of evidence are diminished in importance.
Overlay such attitudes with a national crisis, and connect them with the current vogue of populism that understands the center of political conflict to lie between ordinary citizens and a privileged societal elite, and the stage is set for political breakdown, precisely the danger we face today.
What is to be done?
The Bible is our sword and shield, many a minister has said. There is ample room to welcome that in life. But when it comes to COVID-19, it’s science that is our sword and our shield.
Just how do we move to that appreciation? We may wait in the slowness of time until the pendulum swings in that direction; however, merely waiting in the midst of a national health crisis is irresponsible. Perhaps the coronavirus crisis will so deepen that responsible action becomes unavoidable. During the Great Depression, it was economic collapse that moved the nation to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Along that line, national leadership today may become discredited, as it did with Presidents Herbert Hoover in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson three decades later.
A preferable option, however, would be a public education campaign led by leaders of both political parties and recognized public health experts that communicates the urgency of action now to avoid further harm to the functioning of our democracy. Refusing to face facts on the personal and national impact of rampaging coronavirus amounts to not only political but also a moral failing.
One of history’s lessons is that powerful economic interests, politicians and sycophants often resort to self-interest rather than national interests. If that lesson doesn’t register, then what we can do is to vote in November. Meanwhile, wear masks, avoid large groups and think about others.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.