Institutional trust is built over the course of years. Decades. Centuries.
Dishonesty takes just a moment to destroy institutional trust.
This week, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine, got into a spat with podcaster Joe Rogan and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Hotez has a long-standing feud over vaccine efficacy and safety with RFK Jr., who has long been a proponent of the scientifically unverified theory that childhood vaccines cause autism; RFK Jr., appearing on Rogan’s podcast, tore into Hotez. Hotez responded by accusing Rogan of spreading “misinformation” — to which Rogan quite properly responded that if Hotez wished to rebut that “misinformation” in debate with RFK Jr. on his show, he’d be happy not only to host but to contribute $100,000 to a charity of Hotez’s choice. Hotez refused the invite. He then appeared on MSNBC, where he explained, “Anti-vaccine disinformation… is now a lethal force in the United States. I offered to go on Joe Rogan but not to turn it into the Jerry Springer show with having RFK Jr. on.”
This is still a free country; no one is obligated to debate anyone else. But Hotez essentially argues that his credentials excuse him from having to defend his case publicly in debate. In the past, there might have been something to that: Few would have expected a virologist to debate, say, Jenny McCarthy, even 20 years ago, for better or worse. Why? Because the scientific community could point to decades of success in health outcomes — longer, healthier lives and fewer childhood diseases among them. The scientists acted as scientists, predominantly worried about following evidence and producing functional solutions to human problems.
Then the scientists decided to promote garbage while hiding behind their credentials. They claimed that men could be women; that universal masking would stop the spread of COVID-19; that schools had to be closed to stop mass death from COVID-19 among children, and that at the same time, protesters on behalf of “racial justice” could safely congregate in close proximity; that the COVID-19 vaccine would stop transmission; that capitalism had to be curbed to stop global warming. They used the credibility of science to preach political nonsense.
And in just a few years, the credibility gained by our scientific institutions has completely eroded. Just 41% of Americans now say that they believe the Centers for Disease Control are doing an excellent or good job. That distrust is entirely earned, given the CDC’s egregiously awful performance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All of this means that those who purport to speak in the name of science — the same people who have used that label to avoid debate — must now wade back into the arena. They simply don’t have the credibility to demand the trust of the public. It’s time to earn it.
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