There is no shortage of strong opinions in the world today. You can’t get on social media without somebody forwarding you a blog by someone else disputing something that’s out there in the press provided by experts. It’s almost as if we’ve become anti-expert in this country. Just because you feel strongly about something doesn’t make it true. Commenting on topics you know very little about is potentially dangerous. If you only read articles or listen to blogs that validate your point of view, then by the very nature of your activity, you are biased.
It’s okay to have opinions. It’s also okay to not do the hard work of developing educated opinions if that’s who you are. What’s not okay, is circulating poorly formed ideas or unsubstantiated claims to people as if they true. The mark of an educated mind is that it is open to alternative points of view. You have to actually listen to the clinical experts and read what they have to say and sort through the evidence before you dispute it. You need to have a base level knowledge of statistics to understand how data can be manipulated. Geopolitics is a complex and ever changing field of study and not a wise domain for amatuers. You may not always know who to believe, but some people are more credible than others.
I certainly don’t claim that any one party or group of individuals has all the answers. I think it’s fine to challenge status quo thinking. The history of innovation and advancement in our society has been driven by people who challenged accepted ideas, but these innovators actually did the hard work to get it right. They went to school. They studied. They experimented. They followed the scientific process. They learned from their expected mistakes. They didn’t just sit in their easy chair or in front of their computer and spout off opinions. When it comes to issues of national or international wellbeing, I am less interested in how your “feel” and more focused on what you “know.” Do you really think our public officials want to wreck the economy or risk human life recklessly? Their job is to inform our elected officials who then debate and make policy, craft legislation, and fund priorities accordingly.
Our society is becoming more and more divided and tribal which doesn’t bode well for our future. When you have a leadership mentality that is “you’re with me or against me,” I guess that is inevitable. It’s rare that Americans have agreed on anything. Rigorous dialogue and debate is part of our culture and political heritage. However, there is a difference between educated civil debate and the clash of uninformed opinions. Speaking loudly and confidently doesn’t mean you’re right. Conspiracy theorists prey on the emotionally and intellectually vulnerable. Moreover, there is a stark contrast between the media who follow the journalistic process and are bound by ethical standards and random people who operate without editorial oversight or follow basic research principles. By the way, the opinion pages are full of just that, opinions. There is now a whole class of people who populate these pages with strong opinions with no expertise on the topics they are writing about. Every once in awhile reputable publications give space to experts, but is rare. Reading Op-Eds alone doesn’t qualify as research.
Please do the work. If you’re unwilling to do the work, then please listen to the experts. And, if a majority of the experts agree on something, you probably should listen to them unless you’ve really spent time researching the issue, and even then, fully understand the position of the experts before you challenge them. I am amazed by the number of people who probably only have a high school understanding of biology (at best), who are willing to challenge the ideas of people who have spent decades doing scientifically tested healthcare research reviewed by world-class experts. Public health officials are some of the most highly trained people in our society. If your gut tells you to challenge something, then please start by asking questions and growing your own knowledgebase before jumping to unfounded conclusions. Please also push yourself outside your comfort zone and review content relevant to the topic, not just what you like reading or listening to.
Sadly, there has always been an anti-intellectual strain that runs through American society. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because the majority of us were put off by people in classrooms growing up who were obviously smarter than us and did the hard work to ace their subjects. It made us feel “less than” in some way. It can be unnerving to feel incompetent especially as a young adult. In addition, it can be frustrating to read and try to comprehend the information provided in textbooks especially if the topic only has passing interest to you. It’s rare to have a teacher who inspires us to understand difficult topics and stretch ourselves intellectually. Most of them are just trying to do their job and get through the day.
We like to make ourselves feel better by saying, “those people don’t have any common sense,” or “that’s not how it works in the real world,” or the “media is always biased (when it comes to science and facts it should be),” or ”they must have a hidden agenda,” etc. Skepticism is easy and takes little effort. Yes, of course, personal experience is important especially as it pertains to something you’ve spent your lifetime doing or learning about. But self confidence, street smarts and life experience alone, are insufficient in a medical crisis or economic meltdown. These are the times when we need to listen to the experts and let other experts keep them in check. The media should be questioning these experts to better understand the topic themselves not advance a preconceived point of view. All of the major advances made in the last two centuries in medicine, technology, telecommunications, etc., were created by very smart people, who worked extremely hard developing their expertise, and who surrounded themselves with other very capable people, to advance their chosen field. It didn’t just happen by chance. We will get through this current crisis because of technical experts not social media influencers or paid talking heads with a knee jerk reflex to criticize what they really don’t understand.
Lastly, please remember that success in one endeavor doesn’t necessarily translate to knowledge about everything else. Just because you’re good at running your business or plying your trade, selling products/services, fixing technical problems, or balancing the accounting ledger, doesn’t mean your wisdom translates to everything else as well. Once again, I am not attacking your right to form personal opinions. Just don’t present them as facts that should be equally waited in a serious problem solving conversation. It’s also advisable to say, “I don’t know,” or “I need to do more research,” probably a lot more often than many of us say it. And, there is no such thing as alternative facts. Critical thinking doesn’t mean biased thinking. You don’t change the facts to suit your opinion. It should work the other way around. Moreover, adults shouldn’t use social media to disparage people they don’t agree with. I believe that one of the reasons we’re struggling to find competent people attracted to the public sector these days, is because of all the nonsense they have to deal with once they get there. Personally, I am just glad, Dr. Fauci and his colleagues have thick skins and the patience and perseverance to keep us moving forward. We are lucky have him and them and their collective expertise.