Do You Trust Your Doctor?

Between the absolute insanity of American politics and the catastrophic toll of COVID-19, it seems fair to think that public trust in experts is bottoming out. The political sphere is little else but weaponized polarization. Elected officials as public servants is a quaint idea; now they are tribal figureheads in America’s increasingly unwinnable culture wars. Coronavirus, meanwhile, has exposed the depth to which partisan commitments shape our cultural spirit. No one is exempt: not the conspiracy theory-embracing right, not the scornful and elitist left, and certainly not a compromised media class. Years of education and grooming for leadership or journalism are being wasted in the service of the cheapest imaginable political brownie points. We could say, with some justice, that America is currently without any morally qualified leadership.

But if the unraveling of public trust is a compelling analysis, it’s also more complicated than that. A few months ago Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent blog post on Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Anthony Fauci. It’s important to keep in mind that this post was written in March, right when most states were scrambling to form a response, public fear and anxiety were peaking, and the threat of mass death was real and urgent. This was, obviously, not the correct time for Limbaugh to play his part in what Tim Nichols dubbed “the death of expertise,” and Alan took him to task fairly and astutely.

I sent Alan an email about his post and he ended up publishing what I sent him. I’m reposting it because it alludes to a theme that I think bears more fleshing out:

You know what the most interesting thing is about Limbaugh’s COVID commentary? The fact that he was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It stands to reason, does it not, that a man who desperately needs the best experts and credentialed information in this season of his (possibly fading) life would see the value of expert testimony? But in my experience, this actually has little effect on people. My family tree is full of people who practically live in the hospital and eat prescriptions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who are confident that Sean Hannity knows more about anything than any scientist, lawyer, or even theologian. The death of expertise is so nefarious precisely because it’s resistant to cognitive dissonance.

I still think what I told Alan is true and a fair observation. But I’ve started suspecting that I drew the wrong conclusion from it. The fact that QAnon readers go to their checkups and take prescriptions may not mean that the death of expertise is hypocritical, it might mean that the loss of public trust is a different kind of loss than I supposed at first. None of my family or friends who think COVID-19 is entirely or mostly a hoax refuse to see doctors. None of them refuse to get prescriptions, or receive exams, or obtain insurance. If their physician says, “Let’s get your blood pressure under control,” they don’t say, “That’s not what Sean Hannity says.” But that’s because it’s their doctor. If a Biden-appointed chairman of the FDA were to tell them to get their blood pressure under control, they might (and probably would) suspect Big Brother is at it again. But their doctor is different. Their doctor is for them.

I think it’s very significant that COVID-19 has been covered in American journalism almost exclusively with a political angle. One of our church friends is a nurse in the Chicago area, and for the last 6 months she has kept us updated on her work with families infected by coronavirus. She has seen brutal, heartbreaking cases. But she has also seen entire families get infected with mild or even no symptoms. She knows the names of many people who’ve died alone in an ICU, but she also knows the names of children for whom missing school poses a greater threat than the virus ever did. Lindsay interprets what she sees medically, not politically, and her perspective is not easily leveraged in support of any narrative. The mutual church friends we have who lean toward the “hoax” thesis listen to her carefully and I’ve watched their views change as they did so. Why? Because they trust her. They may not trust the medical establishment, and they certainly may not trust journalists, but they do trust their nurse friend.

I think this means that the “loss of public trust” needs to be understood in a specific way. Something real is being lost, but it might be that what is being lost was not entirely well-kept in the first place. To the extent that public trust and the “death of expertise” describe real phenomenons (and they do!), it seems like they mostly describe phenomenons that were only possible in the recent past, and that came to us downstream from technological and sociological transformations that marginalized the role of place and asked for a generic, detached kind of civic life. In other words, I’m not sure anymore that people are supposed to greatly esteem expert cultures. Perhaps trust is a more precious commodity than that, which costs the price of knowledge, proximity, maybe even something like friendship.

And perhaps when public trust is demanded for people and institutions that grow more and more remote, and more and more beholden to invisible stakeholders, that kind of trust is far more fragile and prone to manipulation. Yes, by the rules of strict logic, you need trust in universities and medical boards and licensing laws in order to trust your physician that tells you to take better care of yourself. But those universities and boards and laws are not your doctor. They will not take your call and they will not look at your pain. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

3 thoughts on “Do You Trust Your Doctor?”

  1. I am just appalled at the way the Christian community is dealing with COVID-19. My personal congregation is cheering on Grace Community Church’s efforts to open up (actually, they are already open, but that is another story). They report all kinds of statistics that are not true, go back to March reports about masks, which yes, have changed, but this is the first time in a century that our country has experienced a pandemic like this. I know it’s a hard time, but if we could work together and follow best medical practices, vs sniping at each other and blaming all on a “plandemic”, it would be so much better, and probably we would get through it quicker. This reminds me of the Satanic panic of the 80s/early 90s. At that time, I came home for a missionary furlough, and you would have thought I was back in a shaman-led village in the Amazon. Satan likes to divide us, and he has done a great job with COVID-19. And that furlough? After talking to fellow Christians who were recovering all their old memories, listening to Mike Warnke, and exorcising Cabbage Patch dolls, it was a relief to get back to the land of the drug lords and the political assassinations. At least, I understood what that was about.

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  2. I think the wrongness of the expert class, mentioned by Jacobs, is a bigger part of the story than the fact that they are remote and detached. How much have the experts discredited themselves through blatant ideological bias/gullibility and overreach? I’ll give just one example in the field that you focus on: You talk about the cognitive dissonance involved between distrusting Fauci yet accepting cancer treatments from credentialed medical personnel–what about the cognitive dissonance involved when credentialed medical personnel tell you that a man can become a woman?

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  3. One of the very best articles I have read on this in a very long time! (I read it back in August but am only commenting now). I too have many friends at GCC and their fanatical denial of medical truth is very upsetting, both because so many of them are close friends and close brothers and sisters in Christ, whose resolute denial of medical truth is, looking at all this from the outside (the UK) profoundly damaging to the Gospel. “Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord and COVID is a Democrat fake so be proud not to wear a mask” all uttered in the same breath and with the same conviction! Of course such people also hate Democrats, Mark Dever, the Gospel Coalition – and say so publicly! What tragic times we inhabit – thank God for Samuel James, Crossway, Together for the Gospel and 9Marks! You are all such a relief to conservative Evangelicals outside the USA who know that the virus is real, and is God’s loving way of reminding a world that has rejected His existence that there is a reality out there that our secular world has forgotten….

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