How Did Public Science Lose Its Credibility? Mission Creep.

Movements Start Small #19

“When you mix science and politics, you get politics.” - John Barry

Almost two years into the COVID crisis, it is clear that our public scientific institutions have lost a great deal of trust with the general public. The NIH, the FDA, the WHO...all are facing constant attacks on their credibility and competence. 

They publish data, but many don’t believe it’s the whole picture. 

New policies are pronounced, but resistance is widespread.

Institution leaders give interviews and speeches, but few change their mind.

The crisis in credibility is a tragedy and must be repaired.

Why has this credibility gap emerged? My take is we have asked public science to stray way beyond its core mandate - and competence - into policymaking. One small anecdote makes the case. 

As we all know, Dr. Fauci proclaimed in the Spring of 2020 that masks were not necessary or helpful. By summer, he had reversed course. Getting something wrong is not the problem. In fact, that is how the scientific process works - collect data, draw conclusions, get more data, draw new conclusions. The problem emerged when he explained his error. He justified the statement based on his desire to avoid a run on masks that would limit supply for the healthcare workers. The motive - and potentially the direct impact - was potentially positive. But, at what cost? Credibility. It was a noble lie, but a lie nonetheless. How do you trust anything presented again, knowing ulterior motives could sit behind the conclusions? From a small abuse of truth you open the door to all sorts of doubt, even conspiracy.

Don’t get me wrong, I ascribe no ill intent to Dr Fauci. But, as the story shows, we are asking him to go way beyond the scientific process of uncovering knowledge. He is also developing policy and persuading the public. And, while this is a vivid example, it is not a one-off. Fears of racism impacted honest inquiry into virus origin. Potential vaccine hesitancy continues to cloud the discussion on natural immunity. All over the place, we are asking science to twist conclusions for behavioral outcomes, not perform the core truth seeking that is the basis of their mission.

The source of this mission creep is the inability of our leaders to take ownership of issues, evaluate trade-offs and make hard calls. 

Leaders “follow the science” rather than use it as an input to decisions. This vastly overused phrase suggests there is some simple truth that makes public policy clear cut. But, if COVID proves anything, complexity is the norm and hard truth elusive. It is a crazy disease, constantly evolving, dealing different hands to different people, moving across regions in odd ways, and constantly surprising. 

More importantly, we live in a dynamic and interconnected economy, a pluralistic society and face resource constraints. Determining policy in this context is not the role of epidemiologists alone. They should stick to providing known facts and information about the disease. We need economists, sociologists and public policy experts to help advise on broader policy and trade-offs. And our leaders must make the calls - and be held accountable to them.  

Once these scientific institutions are viewed as having an agenda, doubts are inevitable. And for good reason. If you go on the record pushing a policy, all incentives will push you to find data to support it (and hold back contrary information). Confirmation bias is not only powerful but universal. We need scientific institutions that present facts and embrace the uncertainty of science. Any data should be presented as conditional and subject to change and not include recommendations on broader policy. Putting science in this role ensures more objectivity and less skin in the game which could blind them to new information.

But, we keep pulling public science into politics. Congress can surely erode property rights in an emergency, but asking the CDC to do it? There is no faster way to corrupt the integrity of a scientific organization than engaging them at this level. But, our leaders keep demanding it, destroying the very institutions we need to get to the truth.

Public science must rebuild its credibility. These institutions are imperative to objectively collect data, test hypotheses, perform foundational research and plan for low probability events. Let’s get them back to a focused mission of performing science - and demand our elected leaders and advisors do the policy making.

Good Reads

  1. The Atlantic lays out the latest problems with COVID statistics. Detailed and accurate data has been missing throughout the pandemic slowing our ability to learn and adapt - and increasing the politics. 

  2. We hear lots of talk about climate equity. How about energy equity? The poor get hurt the most from rising energy prices. And they are rising.

  3. Nature is complicated! Wild boards till the soil - and release tons of carbon from the soil.

  4. Is Elon Musk brilliant or crazy? Both, of course! Douglas Copeland takes on the detractors.

  5. The McKinsey resume in one tweet. True!

  6. The complex reality of helping the poor via increased social benefits and low end wage increases. Implicit taxes are the loss in benefits that come with wage gains. In reality the poor who get a raise pay the highest marginal taxes - even more so as the safety net increases.