For much of last year, Trump relied on pandemic-management advice from Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and former professor at the Stanford University Medical Center. Despite lacking any prior experience with infectious diseases, having promoted fringe ideas, and having cast doubt on basic safety measures such as mask wearing, Atlas came to direct the national public-health response because he told the president what he wanted to hear. Atlas isn’t the only medical professional to hold back the fight against the virus. News outlets across the country have published stories about local doctors who refuse to wear masks. Recently, news broke that in pandemic-stricken Southern California, 20 percent of physicians and nurses have declined to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, rejecting strong scientific evidence of the vaccine’s safety.
Read: Inside the mind of an anti-vaxxer
Many people have observed a growing hostility toward experts in the U.S., but a less noted and more troubling trend has been the complicity of credentialed professionals in discrediting themselves. As a sociologist who studies professionals and professional misconduct, I shouldn’t be surprised that doctors and lawyers are capable of such recklessness. According to my own research, experts’ dereliction of responsibility has worsened economic inequality, political injustice, and other social ills worldwide. Even so, the level of damage that certain professionals are inflicting upon our country at this moment is startling, even to me.
Recent events represent profound betrayals of the social contract between professionals and the general public. For centuries, societies have given a small group of experts special privileges, such as authority and autonomy, in return for their pledge to use those skills for the advancement of the common good. Enforcing this commitment is the purpose of professional associations and state licensing boards; they establish standards for quality and ethics, as well as for sanctions on misconduct. Professions have been entrusted with self-governance on the understanding—usually made explicit in their codes of conduct—that practitioners would use their powers exclusively in the public interest.
This arrangement always had its flaws: For example, some professions seemed to use their powers primarily to fend off competitors and facilitate other forms of rent-seeking. But that was accepted in the name of protecting the public from quacks and kooks. If self-regulating cartels, such as medical boards and bar associations, were ever going to make good on their promise to protect the public, now would be the time.
Yet in recent years professional societies have grown ever less willing to use their sanction power. My research shows that many contemporary professionals have become adept at “creative compliance”—skirting the edges of formal regulations or finding gray areas to exploit. The result is a climate in which professionals’ betrayals of long-standing commitments to the public interest are more and more likely to go unchecked.