A Storm of Mistrust Between the Public, Science and Government

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By John D. Loike

As scientists, we understand that it takes time to bridge the gap between the mechanics (tools we use to explore scientific questions) and outcomes (accumulating accurate information). When time is limited, this gap creates a discordance between the science and governmental responses to a health issue. Equally important, the disconnect between science and government, mixed messaging and misinformation play significant roles in eroding Americans’ trust in science and government. In a recent Gallup survey,[1] Americans’ trust in science has declined over the past few decades and showed that the public’s confidence in science is linked to political messaging. Two relevant examples where the public lacked trust in science and government are the uncertainty of where the COVID-19 virus originated and the response to the effects of climate change on our changing weather patterns.

In recent weeks the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has further highlighted this gap between science and governmental policy and the emerging distrust of our public regarding governmental policies. Millions of people throughout the world have died due to the pandemic, which has created a disconnect between the scientific need to rapidly acquire accurate data related to COVID-19 (including the Omicron variant), and the need for governments to institute health policies to preserve our health and our economy. While the public must recognize that our capacity to develop several effective COVID-19 vaccines was completed within months as an unprecedented achievement, other questions about COVID-19 and the Omicron variant will require much more time to assess accurately. Unanswered issues include the virulence of Omicron as compared to the original COVID-19 virus or the Delta variant; the capacity of Omicron to evade various approved vaccines and boosters; the disease severity and hospitalization rates caused by Omicron; and most importantly, whether the rapid spread of this variant and its -apparent less severe effects could lead to a dramatic diminution of the pandemic. 

Recent preliminary data from South Africa suggests that people infected with Omicron are protected against the Delta variant. It is possible that if Omicron infects millions of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals, it will provide the necessary immunity to achieve herd immunity—when enough people are exposed to the virus or vaccinated so that the virus has no place to infect or spread—and eradicate the virus. Scientists believe that the Spanish Flu that occurred in the early part of the 20th century dissipated because a less severe variant emerged that vaccinated the population. Accumulating scientific data takes years, not months, yet government policies need to be implemented more rapidly. For example, should the United States ban visitors from countries with high rates of Omicron? Should vaccines, boosters, social distancing and masking be mandated?

Both scientists and politicians face the onslaught of unreliable news stories that detail scary predictions of Omicron and conflicting data about the effects of vaccines and masks. All this contributes to growing public mistrust and may lead to the public to ignore governmental policies that may protect them. 

The public and government officials rely on scientific advice, but the public must understand that our politicians can only respond to the slow accumulation of accurate scientific data by instituting cautious policies until the data becomes more concrete. Specifically, our government officials and the media need to emphasize that until we know more about this COVID-19 variant, we should continue to emphasize the importance of vaccinations, boosters and masks. The health risks of such policies are much less dangerous than contracting COVID-19 or its variants. Our government tried to ban international travel to reduce the spread of Omicron. This was a logical policy to implement but did little to detract from the rapid spread of this variant across the globe. In the future, scientists need to assess whether this travel ban was initiated too late or whether travel bans don’t work in general. Making errors is a normal consequence in understanding science and instituting policies as long as we can learn from our mistakes. In addition, our government must not only assess scientific data but must examine the financial and social implications of any policy in balancing these outcomes with health outcomes. 

To renew public trust in science and government, we need to educate the public on how government bridges the gap between science and policy. The public needs to recognize that gathering scientific information can, at times, be slow and will lead to errors. At the same time, the public needs to know that sometimes governments must be cautious in formulating policies to protect the public. Once public trust is re-established in science and government, the public will be more likely to follow governmental policies that will hopefully lead to the control or end of this pandemic.

John D. Loike is a professor of biology at Touro College and University System’s Lander College of Arts & Sciences and interim director of the Medical Ethics Program in the New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice.

[1] https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article252828253.html