A New York Times Reporter Claims Americans Distrust the Government’s COVID-19 Advice Because They Don’t Understand How Science Works
Many Americans do not have much faith in the government’s COVID-19 advice, which has changed repeatedly during the pandemic, often for questionable reasons. It has not helped that local, state, and federal public health officials have defended their positions with disingenuous arguments or misrepresented the scientific evidence.
A survey conducted last spring by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that just 52 percent of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other public health authorities had even lower ratings: 44 percent for local health departments, 41 percent for state health departments, 40 percent for the U.S. surgeon general, 37 percent for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and 33 percent for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example.
New York Times health and science reporter
Is it really so surprising, then, that Americans feel bewildered and bamboozled, even enraged, by rapidly changing rules that have profound implications for their lives?”
There is some truth to this. Emerging evidence concerning the especially contagious delta variant and the possibility that vaccine effectiveness wanes over time, for example, has given rise to lively debates about the merits of new masking guidelines and booster shots. Evidence that face masks play an important role in reducing virus transmission, which was pretty meager early in the pandemic, has been reinforced by more recent studies, although it is still not strong enough to persuade many skeptics, including some who are familiar with the scientific literature.
But Mandavilli completely overlooks other factors that help explain why so many Americans are disinclined to accept the government’s guidance as gospel. Public health advice is not simply a function of science. It incorporates cost-benefit analyses and value judgments on which well-informed people of good faith can honestly differ. Whether “universal masking” in schools makes sense, for instance, depends not only on the uncertain evidence that it prevents outbreaks but on the weight one assigns to the burdens that policy imposes. It also depends on what level of risk is deemed tolerable.
In this case and others, it often seems that public health agencies are working backward, settling on a policy and then searching for evidence to back it up. Anyone who delves into the studies that the CDC cites to justify its recommendation that everyone 2 or older wear face masks in schools and other public settings, regardless of their vaccination sta
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