This meme made its rounds on social media for a time; and I absolutely love it, mostly because the irony of the picture seems to be lost on most of those who posted it. A character who is known for exaggerated unintelligent opinions has become a statement for one’s freedom of expression. Personally I laughed every time I saw this one, so I hope it sticks around. Unfortunately, there is a level of truth beyond the irony which is deeply concerning. Americans seem unable to distinguish between a valid educated opinion and conspiracy theories. We like to say, “I’m entitled to my opinion.” The result of such beliefs is ignorant opinions which only contribute additional white-noise to the larger discussion. I cannot count the number of times over the last few months when someone has said, “I don’t know who to trust”. The reason is that many of these individuals have never learned how to distinguish an educated opinion from an uneducated opinion.
We in American society distrust and despise experts, unless that expert happens to agree with the position we already hold. Such reasoning was on display this week in Chuck Woolery’s outlandish tweet, which gained popularity because it was retweeted by the President.
“The most outrageous lies are the ones about Covid 19. Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust. I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I’m sick of it,” Chuck Woolery
Notice how Mr. Woolery is setting his own expertise against the bulk of the medical profession, including the CDC (and presumably the NIH). We are asked to trust his opinion of the situation, his expertise on the situation. He definitely strikes me as the Muppet above. On what ground does a game show host make such a claim? He is calling out the overwhelming majority of the medical community on how we are to handle a virus, he must back up his claim. And yet, many will listen because they want to hear this as true (confirmation bias). This has become a major problem in America as we thrust aside experts and trust individuals with little, if any, credibility.
There are historical reasons for our distrust of expertise– a combination of a heritage of distrust of elites and the rise of certain 19th century philosophies. There are also psychological reasons we do not listen to experts (a quick search for “we are all confident idiots” will help you understand that). There is also a culture of skepticism of authority fueled from the 1960’s. But there is also pride involved, often we simply do not want to be wrong or inconvenienced and so we distrust those who disagree with us.
Back to Mr. Woolery, President Trump and the virus. what voices should I listen to in the confusion and how do I find them? First, I look at credentials, someone like Dr. Fauci has a noted resume dealing with viruses and so does Dr. Redfield director of the CDC. I listen to critics like Mr. Woolery and I ask if their criticisms are valid. Yes, the Democrats are trying to politicize the pandemic and make the President look bad; however, Dr. Fauci has served six presidents (4 Republican and 2 democrat) with great distinction. So Mr. Woolery is going to have to show a great deal more evidence if he wants me to believe him. Third, I look at recommendations from those I trust. Francis Collins, NIH director, has praised Dr. Fauci in situations which did not require the praise. Dr. Collins is a committed Christian and someone I have admired for some time. I ask myself who has more to gain from making their claims? Remember those two ER doctors who made the rounds claiming the virus is overblown? Well, between those two who had a business interest and Dr. Fauci (who does not) I am more likely to trust the person without the something to gain. (Yes, this means I do not often listen to politicians, who are often trying to sell themselves for November.) This is wisdom, asking who should have something to say on the issue, who has something to gain from their opinion, and who do the wise people, I know, trust in answering these questions we can separate the opinions around us and learn who to believe.
It is okay for people to have an opinion, I do not want to sound like I am condemning people simply for expressing differing opinions. But if one is going to spread that opinion it is important to be well educated, to have an opinion worth sharing. You may be entitled to your opinion, but it should remain private unless it is well founded.