Placing blind faith in unelected celebrity scientists has its limits, and we must not be afraid to call them out
Thanks to our news media’s monomaniacal obsession with President Trump, few have paid attention to an important interview that Dr. Anthony Fauci gave last week, in which he acknowledged that he selectively lied to the American public about the coronavirus and what was needed for our national recovery.
The story is straightforward. For most of this year, Dr. Fauci and other scientists in our public health establishment have been telling Americans that about 60 to 70 percent of the nation would need a vaccine in order for us to reach herd immunity and make the coronavirus a non-issue.
But, speaking with The New York Times, Dr. Fauci admitted that he believes the real number is in fact significantly higher — perhaps 75 to 90 percent — and he declined to be forthright because he felt the country wasn’t ready to hear it. Only now did he say that he feels he has the freedom to “nudge this up a bit” without discouraging the nation.
I am sure that Dr. Fauci — the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — made the decision to mislead with nothing but good intentions. However, let’s be clear about what he was doing: lying to the American people in order to manipulate their behavior.
The American people deserve the truth; they also deserve accountability. When elected representatives make decisions, they can be held responsible by the public. But when public health officials with decades of experience and leadership within our nation’s institutions short-circuit the political process and make these decisions themselves, they deny the American people that same opportunity — and to change course if desired.
After all, accountability is a central tenet of representative government. It’s the best way to ensure that the vision of what is being enforced by decision-makers matches the values of the population who have elected them.
Over the past year, difficult choices have had to be made: How do we allocate scarce personal protective equipment? Is it safe to play a high school football game? How should we prioritize vaccine distribution?
They’re not easy questions, but people should be trusted to make these decisions for themselves armed with facts honestly presented by public officials. And when it comes time to make decisions as a community, elected officials at every level of government must lead.
Passing the buck to unelected technocrats avoids accountability and means falling back on two fallacies: first, that science gives us a straightforward playbook for answering questions facing decision-makers; and, second, that those technocrats are the only legitimate interpreters of the facts.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, things are never so clear-cut. For example, early on in the pandemic, there was a question of whether wearing a mask could be an effective tool to stop the spread.
In March, Dr. Fauci said “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask” and cautioned that “there are unintended consequences” with wearing them. That guidance was confounding at the time, and it quickly became politicized.
But some of the first people to make decisions not based on science were the scientists who, as Dr. Fauci admitted this past June, initially decided not to recommend masks to the general public because they were supposedly “concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply.”
The point here is not to stop trusting public health guidelines. Beating the coronavirus will mean coming together as a nation and continuing to make sacrifices to reduce its spread, as more and more Americans get vaccinated thanks to the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed.