Opinion | We need to trust experts more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Anna Fischer, Staff Columnist

As a former teacher’s pet, I can attest that the best feeling in the world is feeling smart. Often, the feeling of being smart — in the classroom, at least — came from being smarter than others. In a competitive academic environment, correcting or proving people wrong is a powerful and tangible way to demonstrate your superior intellect.

Once I had successfully proven to my peers that I was indeed smarter than them, I felt the need to prove it to my teacher — the Bowser to my Mario if you will. But no matter how many times I corrected her teaching strategy, the simple fact was that my scrawny third grade self was just not more educated than my teacher who had studied elementary education for years.

In the United States today, there is a distinct distrust of experts — those who have studied in order to obtain special skills and mastery in a particular area. As a democracy, the United States is based on the sentiment of “by the people, for the people.” Yet, this sentiment does not mean that the general population knows more about particular subjects than the experts in those fields. The reality is that our democracy relies on the general public’s trust of experts.

According to a Pew Research poll from 2019, only 35% of the population trusts the experts “a great deal” — which, believe it or not, was actually an increase from 21% in 2016. We can look at the COVID-19 pandemic as evidence of our continued distrust of experts.

It is certainly easy to be confused on what advice to follow from the leading virologists and COVID-19 experts when it feels like the information keeps changing. The conflicting advice never seems to end — wear your mask even if you’re vaccinated, there’s no need to wear your mask if you’re vaccinated, you don’t need a mask if you’re vaccinated in a group of less than 10 people, you need to get a booster shot, you don’t need a booster shot unless you’re in a high-risk group, on and on and on. 

I understand that the fluid nature of pandemic experts’ advice can make it seem like none of the advice they give is valid. While experts in their fields may make mistakes or be incorrect sometimes, they still know more than the average person in their field of expertise.

Additionally, science is not static. The scientific community commends experts who change their minds based on new evidence. It shows that they respect the facts and are willing to change your determination when new information is discovered — it’s the essence of science. 

Our generation of scientists have been exposed to pandemics before — AIDS, identified in 1981, and SARS, identified in 2003, are examples that have occurred in recent history. However, now our scientists must toe the line between being experts and being mediators of public opinion. In the information age, experts are expected to be politicians and social figures instead of simply experts. There is additional pressure that the information they put forward must not only stand up to the scrutiny of their peers, but also the entire population of the United States.

The general population should be engaged in the conversation about the pandemic, but we simply do not know more about COVID-19 than virologists. In fact, we only know as much as we do because the American system of democracy relies on providing the general population with knowledge and transparency so that voters can make the most educated decisions possible. We know the science of COVID-19 because experts allow us to know it.

In fact, a Pew Research Center study from 2020 found that 57% of Americans said they trust science more when the data is available to the public. But it is difficult to tell if that sentiment remains true when that available data keeps changing.

We, as the general population, must be able to trust our scientists and experts, especially when it comes to COVID-19. The difference between ordinary people and experts is that experts can interpret that information and make medical advice based on those interpretations. Ordinary people don’t have that ability because they don’t have the necessary education.

There are real stakes when it comes to trusting experts in the midst of COVID-19. An April study from the journal of Nature Human Behavior revealed that anti-expert sentiment “is associated with lower levels of COVID-19 concern, risk perception, and social distancing compliance, as well as higher levels of misperceptions about COVID-19.”

The solution to much of our political divisions and general confusion over COVID-19 is to trust our experts. Stay up to date with the information about COVID-19 that experts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization are releasing to the public and follow their medical advice as much as you can. When new information is conveyed, be understanding and trust that the experts have done their job and changed their minds based on new scientific evidence. After all, changing your mind based on new evidence is the hallmark of a good scientist.

It is not our job as the general population to prove experts wrong. This is not my third grade classroom where the only thing at stake is being wrong about the Oxford comma. COVID-19 is a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 4.94 million people worldwide. Listen to our experts. Save lives.

Anna Fischer writes about female empowerment, literature and art. She’s really into bagels. Write to her at [email protected]