U.S. public health experts increasingly urge the reopening of schools, and yet much of the country still seems unable to do so. This is the most visible and, perhaps, most tragic consequence of the toxic environment surrounding discussions of how to respond to the pandemic that has been driven by a technocratic elite harboring a dim view of the public’s role in important discussions. Yet it is not the failure of the public, but rather of these self-appointed guardians of public discourse to glimpse their own shortcomings, that has crippled our national debate.
The simple, elite explanation for all our problems during the pandemic has been that the public failed to trust the experts and didn’t “follow the science.” This, they argue, is the result of tolerating too much skepticism, which is an ordinary feature of scientific debate. Instead, elites have openly embraced the notion that the public is better served by exaggeration, downplaying uncertainty, or even deception (such as in official estimates of herd immunity).
This disdain for healthy skepticism, a normal part of functioning science and democracy, is corrosive to public trust and impedes the accumulation of knowledge. A climate of overconfidence makes it both more likely that we will adopt bad policy and harder to fix our missteps. Reversals of conventional wisdom are, for better or worse, inevitable in science. We have had many reversals of official positions on COVID-19—from the usefulness of masks to which medications work to guidance about school openings—and will likely see more as evidence continues to come in. The problem is that our current climate locks us into polarized mindsets, which makes it harder to recategorize “misinformation” that winds up being correct.
We’re frequently asked—especially by fellow elites—why we use the term “elite.” The moniker refers to university-credentialed experts in high-paying, usually urban-centric jobs, alongside the politicians and members of the media who enable them. Although the term has a long pedigree, it was repopularized by Christopher Lasch in his bestselling 1996 book The Revolt of the Elites, which criticized the belief system of America’s professional and managerial class. Many commentators increasingly link pathologies in our public sphere, including the populist backlash, to elites’ disconnection from the real experience of others. As philosopher Michael Sandel has argued in his recent takedown of meritocracy, elites exhibit relentless credentialism, embrace the argot of “smart versus dumb,” and have little time for the uninformed opinions of their fellow citizens. Sandel notes that elites misunderstand debates over facts and mischaracterize such arguments as a novel misinformation epidemic, as opposed to a longstanding feature of democratic debate. Increasingly, elites believe that all problems have technocratic solutions, and that they are uniquely qualified to identify them.
Central to the elite claim is that they “follow the science,” a mantra that falsely suggests all science is settled, and implies that science alone should decide complex public policy tradeoffs. When we drive out uncertainty and debate, and falsely or prematurely declare consensus or that a decision is “settled,” we make it more likely that the mistaken policy will be widely adopted in its most extreme form. We also make it far less likely that research will be done to evaluate whether a given policy decision was correct.
America’s schoolchildren have been one of the primary victims of this toxic climate. Today, scientific consensus, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increasingly favors reopening schools, whose closures were more severe and more unfair in the U.S. than in almost any other country. A growing chorus holds that our early, flawed decision to impose sweeping, extended closures of public schools was a mistake all along.
Worse, our patchwork of closures has not been tied to the local prevalence of the pandemic. These closures reflect polarized politics, not public health. Studies have repeatedly concluded that there was no relationship between reopening decisions and COVID-19 case counts. Instead, it appeared to be based on whether the locals were pro- or anti-Trump; schools in Democratic-leaning locations were more likely to close. Partly as a result, school closures also demonstrate a strong racial gap, with white students more likely to have the option of in-person schooling than Black or brown students. Meanwhile, nearly all private schools—95%, by one count—stayed open for in-person learning, compared with 40% for public schools in the fall. As others have noted, many of the most vocal advocates for school closures have in fact had their own children in private school all along, just one of the many ways elites bought their way out of pandemic restrictions.
Many opponents of reopening questioned the motives of those advocating it, rather than their actual arguments. Supporters of reopening were labeled “conservative,” or more commonly, “Trumpian,” an ad hominem attack that has a corrosive impact within the liberal orthodoxy of academia. Those who paid the price for this kind of self-righteous name-calling and politically driven accusation were children.
Warning signs of this toxic climate emerged as early as March 2020, when Jeff Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School, and Vinay Prasad, a well-known commentator on evidence-based medicine, first published a piece expressing alarm that scientists with dissenting views were being “demonized” and subjected to ad hominem attacks. In what suggests an unprecedented moment within scientific discourse, concerns about incivility have been repeated again and again in editorials in top medical journals, calling attention to silencing caused by a “climate of fear” and “personal attacks.” These attacks distorted scientific communication: Some chose to cast their public statements to fit partisan narratives, while other scientists stayed silent so as not to be accused of “Trumpian” motives.
In contemporary discourse, labels like “right wing,” “Trumper,” and “anti-science” are sticky, and often terminal, in elite institutions, regardless of their veracity. By contrast, you can rarely if ever go wrong parroting the partisan consensus, even when it causes widespread damage to the actual human beings in whose name the consensus claims to speak. It is very difficult to defend a reasonable position about school reopening when one is being accused of murderous intent, or playing “Russian roulette” with respect to children or teachers.
By June 2020, the evidence was fairly clear on one unusual, but fortunate, aspect of COVID-19 when compared to many other respiratory diseases: It was orders of magnitude less dangerous to children. That’s why even the American Academy of Pediatrics, usually known for its caution, came out in favor of in-person learning in June. Thus, there were two main risks left to consider in reopening schools: the effect on teachers, and the effect on community spread. (On both, evidence was already mounting that schools were not especially risky.) On the flip side, there were risks to consider of children not being in school—their education, mental health, and so forth—which in many cases were drowned out by exaggerated, politically driven coverage of the direct risks of the virus for children.
Consider the very typical framing offered by New York City Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza in July: “We can make up learning for students. We cannot bring a student back who is infected and passed away.” This implied that the deadliness of COVID-19 for children represented a serious reason to keep schools closed. When researchers from Dartmouth analyzed the mainstream media’s coverage of school reopenings through November 2020, they found that it was 90% negative in the United States, compared to just 56% in other countries. The predictable result of the one-sided hysteria last summer was that a school board member in January 2021 could still earnestly pose the question to parents, “Do you want your child to be alive, or educated?” And even as evidence mounted about the relative safety of teaching during the pandemic, many teachers unions and talking heads continued to proclaim that reopening schools was a death sentence for teachers.
Blaming teachers unions has now become commonplace among people who want to reopen schools, including progressives who normally defend them. Yet in many ways, the inflexible positions of teachers unions are a symptom of elite overconfidence, and a year of doom and gloom with little counterbalance. This has resulted in locked-in positions that are tough to unwind: Even if union leadership believes the science has changed, how does it admit to its members that it had been wrong all along?
Although misinformation can be a problem, the elite mentality toward it during the pandemic has been far too simplistic. The line between misinformation and views one disagrees with is, in many cases that matter, a hard one to draw. There are some views that clearly deserve little audience—those that deny the existence of COVID-19, or that believe vaccines contain 5G chips. But it’s often hard or impossible to make a clear distinction. The WHO, for instance, continues to express strong concerns about mask wearing for children between the ages of 2 and 5, while the CDC recommends masks starting at age 2. Which position constitutes “misinformation”—and who decides?
Tech companies have, indeed, censored some ludicrous content. But at the same time, they have repeatedly labeled posts by prominent scientists on complex issues as false or misleading, which even scientists who disagree with the underlying positions have pointed out is a dangerous, unaccountable form of censorship. Misusing the accusation of misinformation has now become a common tactic for scientists to express disagreement. Some regularly quoted scientists who oppose school reopening have taken to repeatedly terming anyone they disagree with “ignorant and sociopathic” or purveyors of “dangerous misinformation.” The result is that an important term has devolved into meaningless, partisan name-calling intended to shut down necessary debate while stigmatizing one’s opponents.
As a result, many Americans have an overexaggerated view of certain aspects of the pandemic. One of these may well bear on school reopenings: According to polling, Americans massively overestimate the number of children who have died from the disease. Per the CDC, in the United States, children represent less than 0.1% of total pandemic-related deaths. While each individual death is a tragedy, the statistics remind us of a crucial, well-established feature of this virus: It is far less risky for children, with Americans above age 65 constituting 81% of the share of deaths.
In the same polling, Americans also massively overestimate the likelihood that a COVID-19 infection will lead to hospitalization. Forty-one percent of Democrats hold the completely implausible view that more than half of infections result in hospitalization. Ironically, despite the widespread assumption that Republicans underplay the disease, 26% of Republicans get the rate of hospitalization correct, compared with 10% of Democrats, according to the same study.
Marking all pandemic-related questions off-limits except to “science” has clearly confused many people about who can contribute to the debate and how. For instance, it has been commonplace to suggest that Emily Oster, an early data-driven advocate for school reopenings, should not be listened to in these debates because she is an economist, not a “public health expert.” Yet Oster’s published work and expertise is actually mostly in public health policy, which is an interdisciplinary field. And the truth is that mainstream scientific discourse displays a much wider range of views than the public is led to believe.
The point is not about whether any particular scientist is right. Rather, it is simply not a healthy sign when good-faith discussion and uncertainty within the scientific community are labeled in media articles as a “dangerous distraction” or the result, as other scientists have charged, of a “hidden agenda.” Aside from driving out debate, this miscalibration is precisely what leads to an incredulous public unable to make sense of contradictory public health guidance. It leaves us in an epistemic vacuum where no one appears trustworthy.
Some may reassure themselves that this is a temporary phenomenon, the result either of the high stakes drama of the pandemic, or a unique result of Trump’s presidency. Unfortunately, we think this is rooted in a much deeper syndrome: technocratic elites who disdain the public, and who believe their access to greater expertise entitles them to decide important issues themselves.
While it is tempting—especially in the wake of a presidency that showed a keen disregard for facts—to suggest that elite culture is simply tamping down misinformation, this is a self-serving myth. Most who study scientific communication have found that admitting uncertainty doesn’t harm public trust. When we and others express alarm at the overlabeling of misinformation, we are not defending those who do things like deny the existence of COVID-19 or spread falsehoods about vaccine side effects. Over the course of the pandemic, we have also seen the misinformation label regularly applied to mainstream scientists speaking in their field of expertise. The suppression of doubt can be subtle, such as the kind of bandwagoning and overconfidence that drown out debate, or it can be obvious—from outright censorship to misuse of the phrase “fact check” when applied to disagreeable opinions. This approach not only hampers discourse, but ultimately undermines public trust in science and the credibility of the very elites who claim its mantle.
Jacob Hale Russell is associate professor of law at Rutgers.
Dennis Patterson is professor of law and philosophy at Rutgers.