CDC Failures Will Spawn Institutional Alternatives
When the CDC failed in its mission during the pandemic, the marketplace for trustworthy expertise responded with worthy alternatives.
In the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of experts lament how the pandemic has caused such an astounding loss of trust in the field of public health. This loss of confidence is more than just a vibe: Gallup has written about how confidence in the CDC has collapsed across partisan lines, down to 36% among Democrats and a staggeringly low 14% among Republicans.
I know some people who would say that this is good. The line of reasoning goes something like, “In truth, the CDC has never actually been that great. We just didn’t notice how bad it was until we had to structure our lives around their policies.”
There is some truth to this, but it also discounts how badly the CDC has failed in very specific ways that are essential to its core mission in the last few years. There are many people who take the cynical view that the CDC cannot be reformed, leaving two options: either we ignore the CDC or we abolish it.
Neither of these options is realistic because they ignore the nature of the individual and institutional response to a public health crisis. When people are confronted with a new threat, they scramble for information as they try to lay out a mental map for the realities of the threat. There is no way to become an instant expert on every topic, so people instinctually seek out those who we assume have been studying these sorts of problems in calmer times and with level heads. On an individual level, most people will default to the advice of experts until they feel sufficiently grounded in the topic that they can make their own balanced judgment calls.
This doesn’t just apply to individuals; institutions abhor a trust vacuum. When a school or hospital is determining the appropriate policies for their students or patients, the conversation is going to start with the institutional experts and the first place they look is the CDC.
A big part of what has caused the collapse of trust in the CDC is their failures in providing exactly that role. As COVID became a clear threat in early 2020, the CDC was entirely remiss in their essential role of providing high-quality, state-by-state COVID data to the public. Similarly, as schools sought to open for in-person classes in late 2020 and early 2021, the CDC again failed in their core mission as a clearinghouse for objective scientific guidance and was instead issuing guidance that came directly from teachers’ unions.
However, it is in these failures that we can see the rays of hope for restoring trust in scientific institutions.