It took Donald Trump’s reluctant departure from the White House to blur the battle lines in America’s great culture war over science and reason.
Many progressives found it easy to hold Trump up as a symbol of conservative contempt for expertise and evidence: After all, Trump wanted what he wanted, even if stubborn facts or a global pandemic got in the way.
But with Trump gone, the narrative is breaking down, as many who joined forces to oppose him now oppose one another.
Who are the true champions of science now—the experts who way that Covid-19 vaccines are the road back to normalcy, or those who insist that “masks and distancing are here to stay,” even with vaccination underway?
Who was being more guided by state-of-the art research—CDC Director Rochelle Walensky when she declared at a White House briefing that vaccinations aren’t a prerequisite for teachers to return the classroom, or White House press secretary Jen Psaki when she asserted that Walensky was merely offering a personal opinion?
And who was being more empirically sound—California Governor Gavin Newsom, when he leaned on Walensky’s recommendations to nudge his state’s teachers to reopen schools, or Walensky when she seemed to walk back some of her own recommendations as a part of what some observers see as the White House bending to political forces?
During his presidential candidacy and in the buildup to his inauguration, Joe Biden spoke of a singular commitment to “science and truth”; Nature magazine even hailed his election with the headline, “Scientists relieved as Joe Biden wins tight US presidential election.”
But only a few weeks into his administration, the New York Times noted that “Mr. Biden’s strong relationship with teachers’ unions, which helped elect him, is drawing concerns that it may ultimately thwart his ambitions for a full return to school for all children.” And Politico reported this past weekend, “Biden’s follow-the-science mantra on school meets political reality.” Last night, in a CNN town hall, Biden seemed to backpedal from his administration’s backpedaling, ascribing Jen Psaki’s recent lowering of school reopening expectations to a “mistake in the communication.”
The fact is that science gets politicized, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. It’s naive to reckon that science can produce policy divorced from human values and biases. In fact, it’s unscientific to suppose that our human brains are even wired for this.
Whether a leader is a president, mayor, high school principal or director of a public health department, how they assess the data and how they recommend or enact a policy will depend on a host of factors:
- Are they optimistic or cautious when assessing threats and opportunities?
- Are they congenitally inclined to eliminate all possible risk—or to efficiently manage a certain amount of risk they deem to be acceptable or inevitable?
- What are their personal, professional or tribal incentives to choose one approach or outcome 0ver another?
- How do they balance cold, hard numbers with human factors like empathy—for example, do they say, “Schools are relatively safe, get back in there,” or do they respond to the reluctance of constituencies such as teachers or working-class people of color?
The balancing of those factors isn’t like Newtonian physics. And any leader who claims they’re simply following the science isn’t being honest or transparent about the value judgments underpinning their decisions.
There has been considerable evidence arguing for open schools, with proper precautions, going back to last summer. There are also sensible reasons for holding off. “You can take science and reach a number of different policy conclusions and policy directions that are different, but are still true to the science,” Rich Besser, a former CDC acting director, told Politico.
Leaders and their supporters would do well to avoid portraying themselves as enlightened Galileos surrounded by oceans of Neanderthals. This is a growing tendency on the left, and it further fuels a long-escalating culture war in which anyone right of center views the pronouncements of the elite, technocratic class with cynicism or even outrage. (In that regard, progressive public health experts’ lightning pivot last summer from discouraging all gatherings to encouraging large political rallies may have wrecked their credibility among many Americans for at least a generation.)
Defusing this culture war is essential if we’re to find find our way out of this pandemic in a manner that leaves us better equipped to tackle future emergencies, including the small matter of global climate change.
It begins with leaders having the humility not to claim the mantle of scientific supremacy, and to admit that they’re balancing competing values while trying to be open to emerging facts.