Anthony Fauci has been an extraordinary presence during the COVID-19 crisis: calm yet urgent, informative yet plain-spoken. Along the way, he’s doing something even more difficult than explaining COVID-19. He’s providing insight about the role of the scientific expert in a liberal democracy.
Scientific experts are considerably diminished from what they were some decades ago, as our debates about climate change, vaccinations, genetically modified organisms and many other topics reveal. Archon Fung, a scholar of democratic governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School, describes our state of affairs as “wide aperture, low deference democracy”: almost everything is now up for public debate, even climate science, and those who have traditionally led such debates are losing their influence.
There are many reasons for the decline of experts. The new media environment, political polarization and growing economic inequality have all helped make the public suspicious of people seen as belonging to the existing power structure. We’re in an increasingly revolutionary mood. In politics and elsewhere, we’re attracted to ideas that seem to flout the rules.
In the midst of this transformation, what it means to be an expert has also changed. At one time, one could qualify as an expert just by being particularly smart or well educated about a technical topic and having been anointed as an expert by other experts, like university officials or political leaders. Think of 1950s scientists and doctors whose lab coats signified their training and the respect and deference they deserved.
Today, more is required. To qualify as an expert is to meet the criteria for a special social role, and nowadays, having the requisite knowledge, ability and recognition is only part of what one needs. Credentials alone no longer make one credible.
This is where Fauci shines. He’s showing us how to be not just trustworthy but actually trusted.
The role is still fundamentally about providing accurate information. Fauci is fighting the outbreak with “the sledgehammer of truth,” as the Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty put it—helping everyone to understand the real dimensions of the problem in spite of widespread misinformation and politics-driven fact-spinning.
But what makes him so helpful and credible has to do with how he provides the information, and what’s especially powerful about his approach is that he’s more or less the opposite of a sledgehammer. He is grounded in humility and humanity: he uses plain language; he admits uncertainties and failings; he seems to be at pains to say that he has a special perspective, “as a scientist,” rather than the only possibly useful view; he refuses to make the science overtly political; he is gracious and cautious when offering corrections.
Typical Fauci was on display when he responded to a question at the March 21 White House coronavirus news briefing about a tweet in which President Trump had said that an antimalaria drug combined with an antibiotic looked very promising.
“I’m not totally sure what the president was referring to,” began Fauci, before saying that he assumed it was an anecdotal report recently drawing attention, and then gently parting ways with the president. “There are those who lean to the point of giving hope and saying give that person the option of having access to that drug,” Fauci said. “And then you have the other group, which is my job as a scientist, to say my job is to ultimately prove without a doubt that a drug is not only safe, but that it actually works.”
The usual way of invoking science in contemporary social debates is rather different. We use science as a rhetorical weapon to claim the high ground: our side is the “science-based” side, and the other side are “science-deniers.” If people disagree with us, we tear into them. We engage in caustic myth-busting and fact-checking of our opponents even though that strategy tends, ironically, to reinforce the misinformation.
Fauci’s approach is to humanize science: to tell the truth, but to do so with humility and grace, and to present the science as useful for pursuing common values rather than as a tool for fighting about values.
“I don’t want to act like a tough guy,” he told the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd. “I just want to get the facts out. And instead of saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ all you need to do is continually talk about what the data are.”
We will eventually win through to the other side of this pandemic, and when we do, we’ll have a raft of other scientific problems to worry about again. Anthony Fauci is helping us to win through, but the example he’s providing for the trusted scientific expert will be a lasting gift for the debates to come.