As paradoxical as this advice may seem, one important step to regaining our footing is for ordinary citizens to stop constantly seeking information as if we were fish darting about in a tank that’s been sprinkled with food. I say this as a victim of the same affliction; like everyone else, I am overwhelmed with extraneous information. I am far too awash in data, including much that I am not equipped to understand, about how each vaccine is made and which trials had better results.
I’m not advocating for accepting whatever experts say without delay or question. When our instincts and expert advice are in conflict, that presents a real dilemma. Experts can say that something is safe, but if we don’t feel that it’s safe, our inner voice can win out over reason. (Likewise, when experts say something is bad for us, we often dispose of that advice in favor of listening to the little imp on our shoulder telling us that it’s something we want to do, so it can’t be all that bad.)
The best experts help us find the sweet spot between our gut and our brain by explaining processes, risks, and benefits in ways that we can understand. The questions we pose to those experts are an important part of establishing a trusting relationship with them. But we must consider whether we are asking questions that are meaningful and intended to help us reach a decision, or whether we are asking questions to enjoy a temporary sense of empowerment. We should focus on useful inquiries that are guides to action: Do these vaccines have side effects? If I need two shots, how long can I wait between getting them? How long will immunity last? What can I do after I’m vaccinated?
We must also ask whether we distrust particular individuals or whether our beef is with the entire system. A certain amount of skepticism toward elected officials—who have a vested interest in being reelected—is normal. But in our polarized time, this distrust has become extreme. When President Joe Biden said that he thought the Fourth of July was a good target date for the return of small gatherings, many of his critics went ballistic: Who is Joe Biden to tell me what to do?
I had no particular objection to Biden’s statement because I tend to trust that he is listening to experts. I did not, however, trust that Trump was doing the same. But when Trump was still president, I believed that the scientists and doctors in government institutions were doing their best to fight the pandemic, even if I was worried that Trump was interfering in their work. I trusted those professionals not because they wear a white jacket or have certificates on their wall, but because I have confidence in the educational and scientific infrastructure that created them.
This belief is the crux of the matter. Sometimes, experts and their institutions fail. But people who believe that medical schools, research institutions, peer review, and lab trials—in other words, the entire structure of modern science—have all failed or become corrupted are beyond the reach of reason, and no expert advice will sway them.