Pandemic's Other Casualty: Expertise

Rena Steinzor

Sept. 8, 2020

This commentary is included in the September/October 2020 edition of "The Debate," a section of The Environmental Forum. It was originally published by the Environmental Law Institute and is reprinted here with permission.

As the country prays for relief from the global pandemic, what have we learned that could help us protect the environment better? Most alarming, I would argue, are COVID-19's revelations about the power of conspiracy theories and the antipathy they generate toward scientific experts.

Take "America's Doctor" and the dark rumors percolating on right-wing websites. Anthony Fauci is a "Deep-State Hillary Clinton-loving stooge." He was paid off to the tune of $100 million by Bill Gates, who has invested heavily in the develop­ment of vaccines for COVID-19 and corruptly opposes chloroquine, a life-saving cure. The genesis of the pandemic was a Chinese virology lab, where scientists deliberately cre­ated frankenviruses.

Crazy conspiracy theories have alarming traction. The Pew Research Center surveyed 10,957 U.S. adults last spring and found that 43 per­cent say they have a "great deal of confidence" in medical scientists to act in the public interest, up from a measly 35 percent before the pan­demic. But the upturn, which still accounts for less than half of respon­dents, broke down along party lines: only 31 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents had faith in expertise.

Shifting arenas, in 2012, Donald Trump said climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. During a spate of cold weather in January 2014, he said it was a hoax perpe­trated "by scientists [who] are hav­ing a lot of fun." By 2016, he denied calling the problem a hoax during a presidential debate. In 2019, he withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord. A 23-country survey conducted by the YouGov-Cam­bridge Globalism Project in 2019 found that 13 percent of Americans said climate changes were not af­fected by human activities, and 5 percent said the climate was not changing. Only Saudi Arabia and Indonesia have larger numbers of climate deniers.

A group of psychologists has produced a short pamphlet explain­ing how we can spot COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Conspiratorial claims are contradictory, betray overriding suspicion, allege nefarious intent, claim persecuted victimhood, and are immune to evidence, among other characteristics. Common at­tacks on proposals to mitigate cli­mate change resonate here.

Scientists have a vested interest in more research and exaggerate the nature of global warming. The problem may be happening, but it's not as bad as the scientists tell us. Even when scientists tell us we are in big trouble, their evidence is not as certain as they sound. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions would be ruinously expensive and would cause more harm than good. Loser countries like China want to hold us back as they sprint ahead. If the weather gets cold for a few days, it must mean the planet is not warm­ing.

Of course, attitudes towards sci­entific experts are only one piece of the climate change puzzle. But those intent on slowing any advance to­ward mitigation spend a dispropor­tionate amount of time and money disputing the exceedingly strong scientific consensus that changes are happening at a much faster rate than anticipated and, unless we take ac­tion soon, the planet will be in deep trouble. Even if those efforts focus on deconstructing (proponents would say energetically criticizing) individual studies, their cumulative effect is to suggest to Americans that after decades of study across mul­tiple disciplines engaged in by many thousands of scientists, the world's experts still don't know what they are talking about.

The erosion of confidence in expertise, especially scientific ex­pertise, will leave the regulatory system high and dry, susceptible to political currents that are quite powerful. The campaign against environmental regulation is operat­ing at a fever pitch. Many com­mentators focus on the frequent losses the Trump administration is experiencing in the lower courts. They argue, with some justifica­tion, that, in the immortal words of former Trump guru Steve Bannon, progress toward "deconstructing the administrative state" is slower than it appears. But this optimistic perspective overlooks the hollow­ing out of EPA, where scientists and other career experts have left in droves. It will take years to restore the agency's deliberative processes.

Meanwhile, the pendulum is likely to swing back — at least par­tially — on Capitol Hill, generating legislation that a Democratic president would sign and that could be self-implementing. Companies need permits and licenses and citizen suit provisions remain on the books. A workforce with a dearth of experts could be exasperatingly slow in some respects and irrationally fast in others. Stability and certainty would continue to fade as confidence in expertise remains a minority opinion.

I often ask myself how we got to the point where expertise became so devalued. The Trump base, so often stirred into rage against elites, is one answer, and that faction isn't going anywhere, no matter what happens in November. Yet the campaign to discredit science that documents severe problems like climate change was created by elites who could now reap the whirlwind of what they have sown. The outcome won't be good for any of us.

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