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America returns to experts for health and climate

Shared from the 4/13/2020 The Denver Post eEdition By John Flesher and Seth Borenstein The Associated Press

As the coronavirus rampages, the public increasingly is turning to experts in academia and government — the educated, experienced “elites” that many Americans had tuned out.

Ridiculed by some as Chicken Littles, enemies of capitalism or tools of Big Pharma, scientists are — for now — the new rock stars. They’re fixtures on cable news. President Donald Trump, who famously prefers his “gut” to expert opinions, accepts tactful corrections from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, who sets off Twitter eruptions when he isn’t at daily briefings.

“Suddenly, experts matter,” said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, the brain trust for the government Abraham Lincoln established 157 years ago.

“People realize, when the chips are down and everything is on the line and you can be the next person in the hospital bed, it’s the experts that you want to listen to and the experts you wish you had listened to all along.”

Those whose warnings of pandemics and other disasters, particularly involving climate change, have gone unheeded see a “told-you-so type of moment” unfolding. As Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe puts it, “Every disaster movie starts with a scientist being ignored.”

By the years after World War II, intellectualism was under siege in many quarters, exemplified in 1952 when Richard Nixon —hardly a slouch himself in the expertise department — famously called political opponent Adlai Stevenson an “egghead.” Even as the space race gave science a boost in the 1960s and 1970s, expertise kept losing more luster overall as fear of nuclear holocaust, the Vietnam War and economic and social upheaval chipped at away at the idea of a government of the “best and brightest.”

Ironically, the trend accelerated as Americans became better educated and increasingly confident in their own opinions, sprouting from “an epidemic of narcissism,” said political scientist Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College, a self-described conservative. The internet provided an endless trove of information. But that didn’t necessarily make people more knowledgeable.

“It’s difficult to accept expert advice when you can’t endure ever being told that you’re wrong,” said Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise.”

“Nothing sinks my heart more as an expert than when someone says to me, ‘I do my own research,’ ” he said. “People don’t watch for information, but confirmation.”

Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan and generations of politicians following him were deriding government as bloated and incompetent, says Mark Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political scientist. Career public servants, including scientists, were scorned as overbearing bureaucrats. It became fashionable to campaign as an outsider.

Against that backdrop, climate scientists in government agencies and universities have been besieged by political and pundit types who reject the research and don’t want to deal with the scary longterm consequences.

It’s not just a right-wing phenomenon; some on the left challenge the scientific consensus on vaccines and genetically modified organisms.

The inclination to disbelief showed up in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, when Trump downplayed its severity and many Americans refused to change their behavior, says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

But things are changing as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, says Craig Fugate, who headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Democratic President Barack Obama and Florida’s emergency management agency under Republican governors. He credits many of the nation’s governors with accepting what scientists are telling them — and Fauci, for his forthrightness and diplomacy.

“He’s been able to finesse Trump into doing what Trump did not want to do,” Fugate said.

 

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