Unless you’re a virologist or an epidemiologist, you’ve spent this pandemic trusting other people. I have, and I’m not embarrassed about it; I’m proud of the decade I spent in clown college, and I don’t consider myself dumb just because my expertise lies in knowing why “barf” is funnier than “vomit” instead of in the finer points of virology. …
Different people have different levels of fluency in the language of a pandemic, but almost all of us will, on some level, be relying on social trust.
Which is why “follow the science” doesn’t quite work. Which science? The science we deem credible depends on who we trust. Personally, my social trust in institutions like the FDA and the CDC was formed in part by the eight years I spent working in the federal government. That experience taught me two things: 1) Most federal employees are honest, capable people; 2) There’s a certain amount of hard-wired institutional dumbassery that makes large-scale conspiracy impossible. Which is to say: 1) Nobody where I was wanted to execute an evil conspiracy, and 2) We couldn’t have pulled one off even if we had wanted to. I know for a fact that the government isn’t doing things like implanting people with microchips, and I know this because in my office, two-sided printing pretty much kicked our asses. …
My trust waxes and wanes depending on what the institution does. Trust has to be earned.
That’s why I think the CDC’s missteps during the pandemic have outsized importance. …
There’s a similar problem regarding the mainstream media (which I’ll define as the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, CNN and a few others). …
I think the Times and Post are the worst they’ve been in my lifetime, but they’re not complete bird cage liner just yet. Still, the change is significant; the difference between a Times I trust 90 percent and a Times I trust 75 percent is the difference between me using them as my go-to source for information and me seeking other sources for that role.
In the past year or two, we saw a major push for institutions to reflect a particular ideology; many people argued that institutions preaching neutrality should instead “take on a social justice role”. It happened in some corners of the media, several organizations, and many universities. Scientific touchstones like the American Medical Association and Science-Based Medicine had weird moments. The ACLU’s purpose seems to have dramatically changed. The result has been a degrading of institutions’ credibility, both individually and collectively. To the extent than institutions have accepted this change in purpose, people no longer trust them to provide the truth.
That’s rational, because an institution that declares that its purpose is to pursue “social justice” as defined by a narrow set of activists has disavowed the pursuit of truth and declared loyalty to a predetermined set of beliefs.
I feel that institutions chronically undervalue their credibility.
Impressive results lead to credibility. You have no choice but to respect an institution capable of the Manhattan project or Apollo missions. Even if you disagree with every aspect of it.
A lot of people alive today probably can’t think of a single impressive thing they’ve seen a modern institution do.
The other credibility killer is that the public now recognizes these institutions as made up of distinct and flawed humans. The NYT is now just a bunch of people on twitter posting dumb shit about their lives. If they really wanted to restore credibility the first step would be to ban all reporters from having public social media accounts. The correct places for those opinions is the opinion pages. Of course that will never happen.
When government was smaller and attracted better people, all our institutions more or less worked and could be trusted most of the time. Not so much now.
The west used to be high-trust. Obviously, that is slipping rapidly. It was a major factor distinguishing the west from the third world.
When I was a kid many people didn’t bother to lock their houses, except on holidays. Some people still left car keys in the car. Only Japan is still like that.