On Monday, President Trump attacked Anthony Fauci, specifically, and scientific experts (“these idiots”) in general. He then “accused” Joe Biden of being likely to listen to Fauci, should he become president. (Biden’s apt, Coolidge-esque response: “Yes.”)
This approach seems ludicrous. And from a rational perspective, it is.
But given Trump’s available options, he may view it as his best play.
Start from the proposition that Trump is far behind in this campaign, and, moreover, that he knows he’s far behind. Absent a disruptive change in the race, his chances of prevailing are very low. If he upsets the status quo, it’s possible that his chances could diminish further, but unlikely. As an incumbent president polling near the 40 percent mark, he’s already near lowest-low.
On the other hand, perhaps outlandish attacks that try to create a new enemy—in this case, the pointy-headed doctors and scientists trying to fight COVID—could find some resonance with the voters and change the conversation in a way that might give Trump some traction.
Instinctively, Trump may have accurately picked up the public’s frustration with and fatigue from the virus. Always the marketer, he is now peddling an attractive counter-narrative—the pandemic’s all been overblown by Democrats and their enablers in the scientific and media communities, like Fauci. Maybe people believe him. Maybe not. But as the cognitive psychologist Hugo Mercier would remind us, the social utility of a fiction (to say nothing of the comfort it might provide) is often more important than how convincing it actually is.
The more interesting question is what this new tact is likely to do to public attitudes toward science.
The optimistic view would be that by coming out so strongly against science, Trump might restore traditional bipartisan support for science by prodding today’s Republicans. For instance, shortly after Trump lashed out at Fauci, Senator Lamar Alexander—to his credit—released a statement saying,
Dr. Fauci is one of our country’s most distinguished public servants. He has served six presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan. If more Americans paid attention to his advice, we’d have fewer cases of COVID-19, and it would be safer to go back to school and back to work and out to eat.
But the pessimistic view is that our public discourse shouldn’t be framed as “pro-science” versus “anti-science.” Because that’s not—or at least, it shouldn’t be—how we think about science.
Science is about trying to understand the complexity of nature; it’s a method of theory and exploration, of trial and error, of hypothesis and validation or refutation.
Science is a dialog, not a dogma.
There isn’t (and certainly shouldn’t be) a singular “scientific” view of COVID-19 yet. We are still early in our encounter with this pathogen. Much of the pain it has caused us is precisely because it is novel and we do not yet fully grasp its complicated impact on the human body and human populations. What “science” asks for is a rich dialectic filled with competing hypotheses and solid data driving robust discussions.
If, instead, we are herded into choosing a single side—“pro-science” or “anti-science”—then yes, the more responsible answer is clear. But that’s an impoverished way of thinking about science and is, itself, a sign of failure from our national leadership.
What we need is a president who can cultivate the difficult and often unsettling debate that science requires, and a Congress that demands a more expansive, and less binary, conversation.
Trump’s disdain for science has visibly done the country a great disservice.
But if we fight Trump’s attacks on science by insisting on a sanitized view of what is an intrinsically a messy discipline—if we suppress divergent views in the name of providing a unified front so as to deprive a duplicitous leader of potential talking points—then any short term gains are likely to come only at a great long term price.