Science and trust

By Robert B. Hubbell, December 15, 2022.

At a moment of scientific triumph for the world, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pinned his presidential ambitions to an anti-science platform that seeks to criminalize the action of scientists who saved tens of millions of lives in the face of a deadly pandemic. As noted briefly in yesterday’s newsletter, DeSantis has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court for the authority to convene a grand jury to investigateany and all crimes and wrongdoing” relating to the development and distribution of mRNA vaccines in Florida.

DeSantis’s action will kill Americans. Many will view the fake investigation as validation of lies and disinformation spread by depraved politicians, media personalities, and hucksters of every ilk who seek to profit from the ignorance and anger of a populous weary of a pandemic that does not care about their weariness. By convening a grand jury to investigate the heroic men and women whose brilliant work saved millions, DeSantis is following the tired playbook of demagogues and dictators across the ages: Create enemies where none exist, vilify experts whose knowledge threatens their authority, and stigmatize all who dare to dissent by speaking the truth.

At root, DeSantis seeks to undermine trust. He seeks to undermine trust in science, trust in the decency and goodwill of scientists fighting a deadly pandemic, and trust in our fellow citizens. DeSantis seeks division and discord in place of trust because that is the only path to the White House for a small, petty man with limited ability and no conscience.

Katelyn Jetelina published a superb essay on trust and science in her Substack newsletter, Musk, Fauci, trust in science, and how to make it survive. Jetelina is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Texas. She has a Masters in Public Health and PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. In other words, she is an expert of the type that threatens DeSantis, Musk, and Tucker Carlson.

She starts her essay by noting that Elon Musk’s tweet that said, “My pronouns are Prosecute / Fauci” received 1.17 million “likes,” and 177,000 retweets. She correctly notes that Musk’s tweet is a continuation of the distrust sown by anti-vaxxers who sought to profit off the deaths of gullible Americans during the pandemic. Jetelina cites a PEW research study that shows trust in science declined slightly over the course of the pandemic. Critically,

declines in trust in science were most pronounced among White adults. Americans with higher levels of education expressed more positive views of scientists than those with lower levels of education.

If we compare the responses based on political affiliation, though, the story becomes jarring: confidence in scientists among Republicans dropped significantly. In fact, 1 in 3 Republicans have no confidence at all.

But the political divide in trust in science masks a deeper issue—the lack of interpersonal trust, i.e., “how much people think they can trust another citizen who they don’t already know.” An Oxford University report demonstrates that trust between citizens is the most predictive factor for Covid deaths globally. Sadly, the US ranks low on interpersonal trust and high on Covid death rate (deaths / million). Jetelina concludes,

We cannot have one group trust public health and another not. This is not how viruses work. Infectious diseases violate the assumption of independence—what one person does directly impacts the person next to them. This is unlike cancer or diabetes, for example. Everyone has to be against a virus, or the virus thrives.

In addition to convening a criminal investigation, DeSantis is setting up an “anti-CDC” that will contest the alleged “political narratives” published by the world’s most respected infectious disease institute—the Centers for Disease Control. And DeSantis has already inflicted significant damage by appointing an unqualified “Surgeon General” who has published junk science papers that make unfounded claims about the safety of mRNA vaccines. (I discussed the junk science published by the Florida Surgeon General in an earlier newsletter here, in the article, “Rebutting Covid disinformation being spread by Florida.”

Engendering mistrust between Americans is the platform of the Republican Party. Undermining trust in science is one of the lines of attack in the broader assault on trust, but it is one of the most deadly. Worse, the media’s reporting on DeSantis’s request for a grand jury treats the story as if his actions are within the pale of “politics as usual.” It is not. DeSantis is willing to claw his way over the bodies of his victims to get to the Oval Office. That fact is damning and disqualifying. That is the story that the media is failing to report.

Musk is spiraling out of control.

You are forgiven if you want to skip this article. But Musk has ordered Twitter to stop paying rent on its headquarters building. Defaulting on a lease usually triggers a cross-default on a company’s debt, lines of credit, and other leases. In other words, it can create a cascading series of events allowing creditors to force a company into involuntary bankruptcy. At the very least, Musk is in a high-stakes bluffing game with his landlords and creditors. He can stiff them up to the point they believe they will do better by forcing a bankruptcy proceeding. A clue into Musk’s thinking may be his sale of $3.5 billion worth of Tesla stock on Wednesday.

In another bizarre development on Wednesday, Musk banned, reinstated, and then banned a Twitter user who posted publicly available information about the location of Musk’s personal jet. For good measure, Musk then threatened to sue the college student who was posting publicly available information. So much for Musk’s commitment to free speech!

What is particularly galling about Musk’s overreaction to the publication of public information is his claim that his censorship was motivated by concerns over his personal safety. That would be the same Elon Musk who mocked Paul Pelosi when he was savagely attacked by a politically motivated stalker. Like DeSantis, Musk is a petty, thin-skinned, wannabe tough guy who crumbles when confronted with conditions that other Americans face daily.

As Chris Hayes of MSNBC commented,

I’m desperately bored of Elon news cycles but this obviously pretextual, post-hoc change to policies to protect his own private jet info is hilarious and makes the stuff exposed in the Twitter Files look like an absolute model of considered, deliberative policy-making.

Is the federal government failing to investigate internal threats from extremists?

          Information obtained by two government watchdog groups from the Oath Keepers shows that more than 300 members claim to be current or former members of the Department of Homeland Security or affiliated agencies. Indeed, “seven Oath Keepers said they worked or previously worked for the Secret Service.” See Newsweek, Secret Service Members Found To Be Part of Far-Right Extremist Group—Report.

During the January 6th Committee hearings, evidence was disclosed that Oath Keepers claimed to have contacts with the Secret Service. See ABC News, Ex-Oath Keeper: Group leader claimed Secret Service contact. Apparently, the Secret Service could not be bothered to investigate the report of connections between the Service and a member of the Oath Keepers. When the Secret Service learned of the report described above, a representative of the Service said,

While the Secret Service had no prior knowledge of this information [and] we are unable to corroborate it at this time, it will be reviewed.

The tardy and underwhelming response by the Secret Service to the threat of extremism in its ranks is unacceptable. The American people deserve accountability and transparency from a group at the heart of national security. The silence is deafening. We need leadership and reassurance from the NSA, Homeland Security, and DOJ.

Brett Kavanaugh likes to party! That’s a problem.

During his confirmation hearing, Brett Kavanaugh famously said (as part of his defense to claims of sexual assault),

I drank beer with my friends. Almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer . . . and I think you’ve probably had beers, Senator.

Whatever Kavanaugh’s past life was like, he is now a Supreme Court justice who owes the American public the appearance (and reality) of impartiality. Last week, Kavanaugh flouted judicial norms by attending a party with the cream of the MAGA-extremist faction of the Republican Party at the home of American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp. See Judd Legum, Popular Information, Kavanaugh parties with the far right.

Supreme Court justices are entitled to conduct social lives. The problem is when justices fail to act with the discretion and judgment that the American public deserves from Supreme Court justices. As Legum notes,

At the party, Kavanaugh was joined by guests that have business before the Supreme Court. Stephen Miller, a former advisor to Trump with an affinity for white nationalists, currently runs America First Legal — an organization involved in several cases currently pending before Kavanaugh and the other members of the Supreme Court.

If Kavanaugh was a judge in any other federal court, his attendance at Schlapp’s party might have violated Cannon 2 of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. Specifically, Kavanaugh is permitting Schlapp and others to, at a minimum, “convey the impression” that they have special access.

As Legum notes, the problem is that Supreme Court justices are “on their honor” to comport themselves in accordance with ethical cannons applicable to every other federal judge.

Concluding Thoughts.

It has been a decade since the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school. In the intervening years, the new reactionary majority on the Supreme Court has elevated the right of private gun ownership above public safety by requiring regulations to be evaluated by reference to laws in place in 1791 and 1896—the years when the Second and Fourteenth Amendments were ratified. That “originalist” interpretation comes to us via Justice Thomas in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen..

The reactionary majority’s heartless cruelty will soon be unleashed on a new round of cases filed in the aftermath of Bruen. The intellectual sophistry and effete snobbery of the reactionary majority are detached from the reality of modern American life in which guns inflict unimaginable suffering. The tide will turn one day, but only if we are unyielding in our insistence that guns are the problem, not “gun safety.” The Court is out of step and should be expanded and reformed before it is too late to prevent future massacres. We owe that to the victims of Sandy Hook—and every other mass shooting in American history.

 Image Credits: DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times