Sam Podnar is a senior at NASH. When she's not writing, she enjoys baking, reading, and talking too much about local politics.
Who Do We Trust?
The American public's trust in the federal government has eroded over the decades -- leaving an unstable foundation for an effective pandemic response.
January 20, 2022
When COVID began rapidly spreading in the US in the spring of 2020, alarm and paranoia kept people inside. Stay-at-home orders seemed like the reasonable course of action as we watched a new and mysterious disease proliferate.
But as people grew restless after a few months—some only after a few weeks—mistrust grew. There was concern about the information we were getting, about what we were being told to do.
During the last year and a half, this erosion of trust has metastasized to consume large swaths of the American public. Over and over during this pandemic, one fundamental question has driven our behavior, our concerns, our hope: Who do we trust?
Trust in the institutions that administer updates, research, and guidance regarding COVID is at an all time low. Less than 39% of Americans trust the federal government to solve problems, both internationally and domestically, according to a poll conducted this fall, and a comparable number, just 42%, say that the government does a good job handling public health threats. Public trust in the government is less than half of what it was even during the tumultuous, scandal-ridden era of Watergate and has generally been trending downwards since the mid-20th century.
The mass media has suffered a similar shift, with a little over a third of Americans granting it a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust—a figure that’s been nearly halved in just under 40 years. And the CDC also hasn’t been spared, with only a slim majority of Americans placing a great deal of trust in the federal agency.
Partisanship has also certainly had its influence; a graph from Gallup reveals that Democrats’ and Republicans’ trust in the federal government’s ability to handle problems swings dramatically based on which party holds executive power, with partisans’ trust tending to drop off a cliff the second the opposing party takes power.
Crisis situations require a government with authority and a people willing to listen. Slowing the spread of COVID has especially been a community effort, with a large majority of people needing to buy into safety measures to ensure their effectiveness. But when most Americans are hesitant to rely on the government and media for information and instructions, disease control gets a lot more difficult.
Undermining the Legitimacy of Science
Misinformation has also done plenty to undermine the authority of the government and scientists; one recent study found that 78% of Americans either believe or aren’t sure about at least one of eight false statements related to the pandemic.
And some have made it their brand to sow doubt surrounding information coming out of the CDC.
On one episode of Fox News’s popular late night show hosted by Tucker Carlson, Carlson expresses outrage at a statement by Joe Biden warning of a “winter of severe illness and death” for unvaccinated individuals. After the clip of Biden, the screen flashes to Carlson with his trademark concerned expression, bottom headline reading: EVERYTHING ABOUT THAT STATEMENT IS A LIE.
Carlson also rebukes the changes in masking guidance from the CDC, expressing discomfort at the constantly-shifting nature of the fight against a disease that emerged very recently. And he isn’t alone in this—many Americans chafe at the reality of science that changes, that doubles back on itself with new developments, that’s unable to produce black-and-white answers and statistics that can be carved into stone and mounted onto a wall, static and authoritative.
That’s the tricky thing about science: it can’t have everything figured out immediately. Scientific discoveries are rarely stagnant, clearcut packages of information—but as a populace primed with skepticism from late night personalities and runaway misinformation sees this in real time, it becomes less willing to just “trust the science.”
And that leaves room for doubt among many, especially when science points more and more towards hard truths.
Changing and Fortifying Beliefs
Let’s dig into that statement a little more: “Trust the science.”
Because despite its intention to change minds, it’s become more of a rallying cry for those who already “trust the science,” who have not spent the last year and a half having their trust in scientific institutions strained, splintered, and broken.
The polar opposite counterargument to that statement is “Don’t be a sheep.” Which, despite its intention to change minds, has become more of a rallying cry for those who already had the tendency to cast doubt on academia, the government, the media—and the science.
In other words: nobody is convincing anybody. At least, not through pithy statements that aren’t doing much to build the sort of widespread, resilient trust in the institutions that have seen their perceived legitimacy plummet through the decades.
“Do your own research” also isn’t particularly helpful. As Ezra Klein reveals in his book, Why We’re Polarized, people who investigate controversial topics tend to just enforce their own views, rather than emerge with a more moderate stance. And when the internet gives everyone plenty of room to search for the information that validates their own viewpoint, instructing someone to “do their own research” might not have the mitigating effect intended.
“Everybody feels they are entitled to their own set of facts,” says Howard Markel, a physician and University of Michigan medical historian, “which is absolute rubbish. There really are a set of scientific facts.”
We can’t assume that we’re immune to misinformation, and we also have to be wary of how our internalized beliefs influence new information. For example, many may have experienced cognitive dissonance when learning that the CDC now recommends a 5-day quarantine, a change from the previous 10-day period. For those who remain wary of COVID, the new waiting period might seem like a poor decision that throws caution to the wind—but the information comes from the CDC, a reputable institution.
This causes a state of mental discomfort, and these conflicting beliefs have friction. It’s much easier to correct this misalignment by readjusting our view of the world, justifying new information with new explanations—for instance, that the CDC has been pressured by businesses to reduce the isolation period so that people can go back to work sooner—rather than accept the new information at face value.
In fact, I was inspired to write this article after experiencing a similar situation.
I read a piece in The Atlantic pointing out flaws in the widely-cited study of mask-wearing in Arizona school districts—a study that I had previously referenced and had faith in. And though I maintain the broader position I held before I read the article, the experience made me realize that I, too, don’t have everything about this pandemic figured out.
This all raises the question: Where do we go from here?
It unleashes a host of other questions, both practical and philosophical. How does the country proceed after the public’s erosion of trust in its elected officials, its scientists, its journalists has proven frustrating at best and deadly at worst? How does a government exercise its authority when in the eyes of many, it has become an institution of liars? How will America handle its next crisis at this level—because there will undoubtedly be one—and how much should anyone trust their government?
In this country, certain long-held ideals about limited government and freedom generally work parallel to a comparable amount of mistrust—in supposed incompetent bureaucrats, smarmy politicians, irresponsible officials burning tax dollars, and invasive, anti-liberty control freaks. Recall Reagan’s famous nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
And so we’re left, still, with the question: What amount of distrust is healthy to exercise? It’s probably not wise to place blind faith in our government or devotedly take marching orders from any elected official who takes the mic, just as second-guessing every byte of information from every news source or never taking anyone for their word debilitates our ability to function normally in society.
The answer falls where it usually does: somewhere in the middle.
The Trust Fall
Think, for a moment, of the most apt metaphor I could use to put this situation into perspective. Think, for a moment, of that nostalgic, thrilling childhood memory, of that essential feature of summer camp and team building exercises. Think, for a moment, of the trust fall.
Ever since this pandemic began, we’ve all been placed on a wooden beam (metaphorically—stick with me). Below us society’s spotters are positioned, interlocking to form a safety net: the elected officials who are supposed to make the choices we elected them to make, the experts and researchers who are supposed to point us in the right direction with their findings, the media that’s supposed to report accurate information. Everyone is supposed to be looking out for us—poised to catch. Waiting for our trust to be great enough that we fall.
This is a crisis scenario, and we have a decision to make.
The most difficult part of trust is that it requires some relinquishing of control. We have to give up a bit of our individual agency and say, Someone else might know better about this. Someone else has the public’s best interest in mind. Someone else is using their expertise to help me. Someone else is deserving of my attention and compliance.
Especially at this point in the pandemic, when daily cases in the US are higher than they’ve ever been, when the long-awaited shot hasn’t made COVID disappear, when we’re almost two years removed from “normal life” and are seeing signs that we’re not yet rounding the corner to the “other side,” it’s understandable that people are more hesitant to place trust in people they’ve never met, in faceless entities and impersonal facts and figures.
The government has certainly mangled its handling of the pandemic at times. Information and guidance have changed, and that’s led many people to give up listening, to withdraw any trust they had in the government and retreat back into a chamber filled with people that tell them what they want to hear and paint a simple picture of a world that, in reality, isn’t so simple.
Back up on the beam. Time is ticking, and indecision in this scenario can’t last forever.
The choices we’ve had to make have been difficult and uncomfortable. The faith we have been asked to place in actors and institutions that previously had smaller roles in our lives has been enormous.
For those of us who have relinquished a bit of our control, who have chosen to lean back and bring the element of “trust” to a trust fall, the decision may have seemed like a no-brainer. But this metaphor hopefully puts things into perspective for the ones who fell backward without a second thought. With the clarifying power of hindsight, we can look back and see how much we’ve been asked to drastically disrupt our lives—mask-wearing, lockdowns, social distancing, virtual school and work. All plunges into the unknown.
The reluctance of some may make a bit more sense when we frame it this way. (Imagine making this choice when every TV personality you watch and article you read warns that your assigned spotters are going to drop you.)
We must have faith that our compatriots will all tackle the “trust” dilemma with reason and nuance, that when they’re up on that beam, the calculations they’re making are based in fact and proceed logically.
Many have chosen to fall; a comparable proportion remains rooted to the beam, upright. It’s difficult to see how we can move forward in this way.
Editors’ note: All opinions expressed on The Uproar are a reflection solely of the beliefs of the bylined author and not the journalism program at NASH. We continue to welcome school-appropriate comments and guest articles.