Trust Science?: Americans on both sides of the political divide struggle to decide who to believe

Americans seem to be dividing themselves into two camps: those who trust science and those who don’t. But even those who traditionally support science and have faith in agencies such as the CDC are looking askance at those agencies, wondering if they’re falling prey to political pressure.

Dr. Michael Fine, doctor, community organizer and former head of the RI Department of Health says that the distrust comes down to money. “I actually think it has to do with the entry of the profit motive into science and public life,” he said. “What’s happening is not science in the public interest, it’s science for profit. … I think people smell it and feel it and that’s what makes them suspicious of science.”

Dr. Fine brings up vaccine development as an example. “The polio vaccine was estimated to be worth $6 billion to $7 billion to the guy who figured it out. But when he was asked if he would patent it, he said, ‘Are you nuts? This is for everybody.’ Because he has that motivation, people trusted it.”

He compares that attitude to the current development of a vaccine for COVID-19. “The government put $10 billion for vaccine development into five companies, two of which have never brought a vaccine to market before. They had no experience, but what did happen was that the value of their stock went through the roof.”

Distrust of the motivation behind public health efforts isn’t a modern phenomenon. Dr. Fine cites the Tuskeegee Experiment as one of the reasons why people in the Black community can be suspicious of healthcare. In the Tuskeegee Experiment, 399 Black men with latent syphilis were asked to participate in a study and in exchange, would receive free medical care. But that medical care didn’t come. “Those researchers didn’t have the community’s interest at heart. They weren’t for profit, but they were willing to experiment on others.”

Dr. Fine maintains that once profit and self-interest enters the picture, the public is wise to question the motives of the science they’re being offered. “Even the people with the best intentions end up being complicit in it,” he says. “It’s amazing how profit has permeated all of our lives, and we’ve let it happen. … I think we are in real trouble as a society, and it’s not because of who’s President. It’s because we’ve allowed every part of our lives to be corrupted. Every place you turn, someone is trying to tempt you to do something in their interest. And that’s how our public life has become corrupted. Until we say it and we confront it, we’ve got a real struggle in front of us.”

The reasons behind people’s lack of faith in science may differ, but Dr. Fine believes the various points of view stem from the same source: a recognition of profit over people. “People on the right, I think, really believe that COVID is overplayed in order to strengthen the deep state or something like that. Like crazy whining liberals are trying to manipulate ordinary Americans by inventing these stories,” he says. “I think a lot of this stuff, when you look at the deep structure, is really connected to various conspiracy theories, which themselves are driven by this unrelenting manipulation for profit.”

So how do we avoid this manipulation and get to the truth? “I have trouble figuring out what the truth is myself,” he says. “When I read scientific studies, I spend a lot of time trying to look for the sources of intentional bias and manipulation.”

He seeks non-self-interested sources, recognizing that it isn’t always easy to figure out who those people are. “That’s why at the end of the day I believe in small government. Not in the sense that the government shouldn’t be part of people’s lives, but I want to be able to look in the face the people who impact the part of the government that affects me. I want to know their kids and spouses and the ethics that rule their lives. That’s the way I get a sense of whether what someone says is true or not.” 

Where is true north on Dr. Fine’s moral compass? “The center of my ethical construction is that it’s bad to profit off the misfortune of others. Once we start allowing profit off the misfortune of others, we begin to get a vested interest in causing the misfortune, and that puts us at war with each other.”