OFF THE WALL
Paul Sutter writes…
Many of you recognize him from “Dirty Jobs”, and especially my followers will know him as the US narrator for “How the Universe Works”. I’m lucky to serve as both an on-camera contributor and consultant for that show, which means that I do fact-checking on half the episodes (the estimable Dan Durda does the other half). In other words, if you hear Mike Rowe say it, it’s because I’ve greenlit it.
A month ago Mike wrote a blog post (https://mikerowe.com/…/off-the-wall-im-not-inclined-to…/) explaining why he wasn’t going to publicly advocate for vaccines, even though he himself is vaccinated and does not view himself as anti-vaxx. The online outlet The Bulwark criticized him for his comments (https://www.thebulwark.com/mike-rowes-dirty-lies/), and Mike provided a rebuttal (https://mikerowe.com/2021/08/90198/).
I encourage you to read all of it – while I don’t agree with everything he says, there are some very powerful points that Mike made that I want to expand on. One of the angles that Mike focuses on is trust. Or rather, the lack of it. He reports that he participated in the early #flattenthecurve campaigns, but felt duped because of the mixed messaging surrounding lockdowns and restrictions.
He points to his own experiences as explanations for why he’s not surprised that many people distrust the political establishment and the push for vaccines.
In many ways, he’s right. There is a fundamental lack of trust at play here during the pandemic. There have been mixed messages. There have been shifted goalposts. There have been leadership inconsistencies. Leaving aside the pandemic, political leaders have indeed lied to their constituents before, which doesn’t exactly help when we’re in a tough situation and we’re trying to figure out a common solution.
He frames it generally as a red/blue divide, citing that at any one point half the country doesn’t trust whoever is in charge at the moment. However, I don’t think Mike goes deep enough to the source of the mistrust. For example, at this point about 70% of the American population who are eligible to receive the vaccine have gotten one (and that number wasn’t much smaller a month ago when Mike wrote the post). Folks, you can’t get 70% of Americans to agree on a *salad dressing*, so the fact that the vaccination rate is so high tells us that this isn’t simple democrat/republican divisions.
I agree that some of the mistrust in political leadership is earned, either through ineptitude or machinations. But some of it is a consequence of the fact that we’re leaning too hard on science. We’re asked to “trust the science”, but we’re literally learning about this virus as it kills us. Science isn’t designed to come to rapid conclusions. Science is slow, methodical…and uncertain. All too often we look to science to be our savior, but science isn’t designed to save.
Many times the messaging and guidance and recommendations have changed because our *knowledge* has changed. Compare what we know about COVID-19 now to what we knew only 18 months ago. In science, that’s basically lightspeed research. *And*, to make it worse, we’re not dealing with a fixed archeological artefact or some star just sitting there for billions of years. The virus is mutating as we’re trying to pin it down.
Many people distrust science because we’re asked to trust the science in all cases. But that conflates things that science knows really dang well (germ theory, general relativity, evolution, climate change, etc) with things that it doesn’t know so well (say, risk mitigation for a brand new coronavirus variant). We’re asked to trust the science before science has produced the best answer, or when the best answer is likely to change.
Also, all statements made in science come with caveats, uncertainties, and assumptions. The ambiguity of science makes it ripe for exploitation. A single study can be used by factions on opposite ends of the political spectrum. And often, science is only a single voice in a crowded room that is trying to weigh all the (often contradictory) considerations that go into crafting policy. But we usually don’t hear about the other considerations – we just hear about the science. So no wonder people distrust science, when the science Seal of Approval can be claimed so cheaply.
I am vaccinated and I do encourage all of you to get vaccinated as well. The science of vaccines is on very firm footing, and (publicly available!) vaccine study results all paint a coherent, consistent picture. However, I have a privileged position: I’m not a medical scientist, but I am a scientist, and I’m trained in sifting through data, interpreting graphs, and contextualizing results. I can tell the difference between “trustworthy” science (in the sense that this is well enough supported that it can reliably inform public policy) and science that is still groping in the dark.
Most people can’t, and that’s through no fault of their own. If our leaders want to use science to inform their decisions, then they should be up front and honest about what the science says (and more importantly, what it doesn’t say). That honesty means that they may not be as sure about their statements as they’d like to be…but maybe that’s okay.
Thank you for posting this! I’m always relieved to have a legit scientist in my corner, (or at least, most of my corner.) Also, thanks for all your hard work on what has become one of my favorite shows to narrate. I’ve been curious about the universe for as long as I can remember, and while I’m still not quite sure how the damn thing works, I’m honored to be narrating a show that been trying to explain it for the last ten years! A few additional thoughts, for those who might not be predisposed to clicking on all the links you provided.
I am, as you correctly described, a public figure who got the vaccine early on, but declined to participate in the flood of public service announcements encouraging skeptical Americans to follow my example. My reticence, (or my “PSA hesitancy,” if you prefer,) has nothing to do with a mistrust of the vaccine, or the related science, or a fear of being dragged into a political fight. For me, it was simply a question of what is persuasive and what is not? And today, in my opinion, few things are less persuasive than PSA’s with earnest celebrities, impassioned speeches from elected officials, righteous lectures from partisan journalists, and heartfelt pleas from public health officials who literally beg us to “follow the science.” (Is it just me, Paul, or does “science” become something else when we put a “the” in front of it, and beg people to follow it?”)
The topic you have raised is trust, and like you, I put my trust in science. But that doesn’t mean I believe the “science is settled,” or that telling skeptical people to simply “follow the science” will compel them to do so. In my view, when it comes to persuasion, the only credible thing I can do in this new age of justifiable skepticism, is to tell the six million people on this page that I got the jab, and then – and here’s the really important part – show them that I am unafraid to live my life. Which is precisely what I try to do with photos like these.
Here, you see me early this morning, preparing to fly across the country for the third time in a month, cheek to jowl on another sold-out flight, utterly unconcerned by the number of unvaccinated travelers that may or may not surround me. Why am I unconcerned? Because Joe Biden, Tony Fauci, the CDC, and every scientist I know all agree that vaccinated Americans have just 1 chance out of 160,000 of winding up in the hospital because of COVID. Who wouldn’t love those odds? A single chance out of 160,000? That’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage. Not a zero percent chance – I get that – but since when did zero risk become a realistic goal? For me, these odds are more than sufficient to allow me to live without fear. And so, I do. The question is, why doesn’t our President?
Last week, as I’m sure you’re aware, moments after assuring the country that the vaccines he and millions of others have taken are “incredibly effective,” President Biden said, “We must now protect the vaccinated workers from the unvaccinated workers.”
You don’t have to be a scientist to hear a message like that and pose a couple of very reasonable queries. 1) If the vaccines are effective, why do the vaccinated need to be protected from the unvaccinated? And 2) If the vaccines are not effective, then why should the unvaccinated get one?
Obviously, no one wants to see our hospitals overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID patients, including the President. I think we all agree on that. But the issue you have raised is one of trust, and if President Biden wants to be trusted, it seems to me that he should first trust the vaccines he’s demanding we all take. Alas, he doesn’t. Instead, our fully vaccinated President still supports a travel ban that keeps my vaccinated friends overseas from reentering the country. Why? He still wears a mask in public – even when he’s outdoors. Why? Last week, President Biden could have congratulated all vaccinated Americans for getting back to living their lives without fear. Instead, he got angry. He literally accused the unvaccinated of “standing in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal.” In short, Joe Biden doesn’t appear to be living his life any differently than he did before getting vaccinated. Again, you don’t need to be a scientist see how fundamentally unpersuasive this is to 80 million people who are already skeptical.
Because I’m now trapped on the plane, hidden behind my incredibly comfortable, totally ineffective, yet completely compliant Safety Third mask with nothing better to do, I’ll tell you what I would do if I were President. Along with acting like I trusted the vaccines, I would let the numbers of hospitalization speak for themselves. I would do this by gathering the CEO’s of every television network – broadcast, cable, and streamers – and I would tell them, (or maybe mandate?) that I needed to borrow the upper right hand corner of all their content for the next month or so. Then, in that corner, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on every single channel, I would display a running tally of all the COVID-related hospitalizations around the country, in two separate columns.
In column #1, I’d show the current number of vaccinated patients.
In column #2, I’d show the current number of unvaccinated patients.
That’s it. No more scolding, no more lecturing, no more blaming my predecessor, no more blaming the unvaccinated, no more blaming anyone for making choices that I don’t like. Given our nation’s addiction to television, I believe – in a relatively short period of time – that the shocking and undeniable disparity between the numbers in those two columns would make a far more persuasive case for vaccinations than anything that any President, any politician, any journalist, or any scientist could ever hope to achieve, regardless of their rhetorical ability to persuade. Or for that matter, any narrator. Even the one who tells you every week on The Science Channel, in a crisp, well-modulated baritone, precisely How the Universe Works…
P.S. Paul – as a man of science, you are no doubt intrigued by my Safety Third mask, and perhaps wondering where you can get one? At base, Safety Third is my way of saying “I can live with a 1 in 160,000 chance of getting sick enough to be hospitalized.” Safety First, on the other hand, would be more in keeping with the belief that COVID can be eliminated entirely, and that life can only return to normal when all the risk is completely gone. As you might expect, my foundation doesn’t sell Safety First masks, but we’ve sold thousands like the one I’m wearing, and raised a few hundred thousand dollars in the process for my scholarship program. I’d be happy to send you one with my compliments, from your favorite narrator, to my favorite fact-checker. The rest of you are welcome to order one here. https://bit.ly/3EjiLa9 100% of the net proceeds go to the mikeroweWORKS Foundation.