In our modern high-tech world, no one person can “do it all.” We rely on those we trust to have the expertise that builds our cities, grows our food, makes our laws, educates our youth, heals our sick, and fills our airwaves. But what can we do when that trust is gone?
From the machinery and technology that make modern life possible to the most basic staples of survival—food, shelter, and safety—we depend on others. We depend on our scientists to reveal what we need to know of the natural world, our medical profession to share information about how to improve and maintain our health, and our leaders to be honest as they make decisions on our behalf.
A modern, complex society such as ours cannot function without an underlying level of trust. We need to believe that our experts, leaders, and specialists have competency in their fields, integrity in their communications and actions, and our good will as their aim. But, today, that necessary trust is evaporating. Our world is entering a severe crisis of credibility.
When authorities are perceived as unworthy of trust—and certainly when they are unworthy of trust—a fundamental element of society’s foundation begins to erode. Today’s credibility crisis poses a risk to civilization itself, and we are approaching a crossroads. Will we return to a world of restored trust? Or are we about to enter a brutal new world in which every man is his own self-declared “expert” and institutional and societal collapse becomes inevitable?
The root causes of the credibility crisis are worth examining—because when all trust in each other is gone, civilization goes with it.
Sadly, when we discuss lack of credibility and distrust, our political leaders often come quickly to mind. In the United States, former President Donald Trump divided the nation for four years. Even some who liked his policies were puzzled by his occasional statements that seemed way “off base.” But was he a genius simply trying to distract his opponents? Or was he an outright liar or dangerous incompetent?
Millions expected the inauguration of President Joe Biden to bring a return to sanity and normalcy—to restore a credibility lost under President Trump. Yet there remain millions in the divided nation who do not trust that the 2020 election was credible. And, while some who cursed President Trump now sing President Biden’s praises, huge numbers of Americans are losing faith in their current President. The gargantuan crisis at the American southern border, the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, the pain of inflation and the supply chain crisis, pandemic results that seem, to some, even worse than his predecessor’s—the list of credibility-destroying situations is long. Whether or not he deserves to have those count against him, the loss of credibility remains.
Policies aside, the perception of hypocrisy has soured many citizens on their political leaders. The pandemic has brought images of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Napa Valley gathering during COVID restrictions, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s salon visit when businesses were not to be open, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political rallies and media events that seem to violate social distancing regulations, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson—in the words of The Guardian—facing “a string of allegations of partying,” along with his senior staff, in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions. The inescapable sense of “rules for thee, but not for me”—particularly at a time when many are struggling with loneliness, isolation, and economic hardship brought about by government policy—has been devastating to the credibility of our political leaders.
Dr. Anthony Fauci—Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden—has understandably sought to clothe himself in the credibility that society has long afforded to its scientists. In a 2021 interview with the U.S. news program Face the Nation, Fauci said his critics are “really criticizing science because I represent science.”
Indeed, observers have noted a growing distrust of those once respected as experts. Author Tom Nichols titled his influential 2017 book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. During the Trump administration, many decried what they perceived as an “assault on science,” just as many now perceive that the Biden administration sets aside science that fails to fit policy goals.
One way or another, the pandemic environment has brought out something new. Suddenly, “experts” are front and center. Scientific and public health expertise has long shaped national health policies, food regulations, and safety guidelines. Now, however, expert advice is imposing massive population lockdowns, closing businesses and schools, restricting travel, and mandating the acceptance of vaccines on penalty of losing one’s employment.
At the onset of the pandemic, citizens were told that life or death was in the balance. Expertise, we heard, would make the difference. Is it any wonder that millions of ordinary citizens—who had never in their lives looked up a scientific study—sought to find scientific studies to confirm their beliefs about mask-wearing or vaccine safety? Many experts like Dr. Fauci find fault with public attempts to hold experts accountable. And there is no doubt that many non-experts lack the knowledge or training to judge the experts’ expertise. Yet it is equally clear that the harsh and unrelenting light of the pandemic has revealed startling truths about our experts and the less-than-pure realm of scientific policymaking.
Some may remember the 2009 “Climategate” scandal—when the release of private emails between prominent climate scientists at the University of East Anglia devastated the credibility of climate-change theorists, with results that continue to reverberate today.
“Climategate” reminded us that when the curtain is pulled back on scientific endeavors, “science” is not some ideal, monolithic entity. Science itself does nothing. Human beings called “scientists” do the work of science, and their practice is very much a human endeavor. As human beings, scientists are subject to all the foibles, biases, passions, and shortsightedness human nature brings. Grievous faults may not taint every scientist’s study, article, or press conference, but when science seems to be just another political tool in the hands of some, a taint of distrust begins to affect the whole endeavor. How can anyone know when to trust that a scientific declaration is “one of the good ones” instead of “one of the tainted ones”?
It is one thing if the experts inform you that too much meat in your diet is unhealthy, or that you shouldn’t feed your children a sugary cereal. It is entirely another if your only source of income is being shuttered and you cannot visit your dying grandmother because of the advice of experts. “Expert” proclamations in the coronavirus era are testing the limits of human tolerance.
On one hand, of course, the pandemic has been a time for the best experts to shine, and some would say that they have. Yet others would just as surely disagree. And any objective observer has to admit that the credibility of experts has taken a beating during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consider Dr. Fauci. As the most visible medical advisor to the U.S. President, he has become for many the face of his government’s response to the pandemic. He says, in essence, Listen to me, because when I speak, I speak from a scientist’s unbiased perspective, and you can trust that I am giving you the truth, not political manipulation.
Yet, over the course of the pandemic, the public has seen otherwise. In a March 2020 60 Minutes interview, Dr. Fauci encouraged the public not to seek out masks and downplayed their usefulness in protecting people other than healthcare workers. Yet, a few months later, he would fully support broad public mask wearing and even mask mandates.
Similarly, as the New York Times noted in September 2021, Dr. Fauci in the early months of the pandemic said it would take a 60–70 percent vaccination rate to achieve “herd immunity.” But later, as vaccination efforts were well underway, he shifted to saying “70, 75 percent” then “75, 80, 85 percent”—and by September 2021 his estimate rose to nearly 90 percent.
Why the change? According to Dr. Fauci himself, he gave lower numbers because he thought Americans would resist taking vaccines. As Donald McNeil reported for the New York Times,
Now that some polls are showing that many more Americans are ready, even eager, for vaccines, [Dr. Fauci] said he felt he could deliver the tough message that the return to normal might take longer than anticipated.
“When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” Dr. Fauci said. “Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.”
Dr. Fauci similarly explained that his early discouragement of masks was to prevent a run on limited supplies, to ensure that front-line healthcare workers had enough. In other words, he was not speaking as a scientific expert, but rather as someone hoping to manage public opinion and produce the outcome desired.
When people seek information from experts, they want to believe they will receive the truth. So, when the public discovers that the experts’ answers aren’t the real answers and are meant to manipulate—not inform—is it any wonder that this creates a crisis of credibility, causing the public to lose faith not only in the answers but also in the experts who provided them?
It is important to know that, even when done properly and sincerely, scientific findings too often are simply not all they are cracked up to be.
In 2005, Stanford University researcher John Ioannidis shook the scientific world with his landmark paper “Why Most Published Findings Are False.” Ioannidis demonstrated convincingly that research studies are designed in such a way that “it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true,” and that, very often, “claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.” His paper gave recommendations for addressing these fundamental problems—and, while progress has been made, deep problems remain.
In particular, peer review is supposed to fill the public with trust in scientific research—knowing that many other scientists have examined and confirmed a reported scientific result. Yet voices are now pointing out that it is an illusionto trust that peer review, as currently practiced, guarantees good science.
A 2014 Wall Street Journal article titled “The Corruption of Peer Review Is Harming Scientific Credibility” quoted a major scientific journal publisher that sought to set the record straight: “We need to get away from the notion, proven wrong on a daily basis, that peer review of any kind at any journal means that a work of science is correct. What it means is that a few (1–4) people read it over and didn’t see any major problems. That’s a very low bar in even the best of circumstances.”
Writing in 2019 for New Scientist, journalist Clare Wilson explored this problem as found in the science of nutrition, explaining systemic problems that misinform the public with false or constantly flip-flopping conclusions—data “cherry-picked” for convenience, results driven by ideology, and even straight-up personal bias. If you’ve ever wondered how scientists can tell us some food is unhealthy, only to declare it healthy again a decade or so later, then unhealthy again, then healthy once more, the terminally unhealthy state of nutrition research is to blame.
Wilson quotes oncologist Vinay Prasad on the state of such radically self-contradicting studies, who observes, “The public is becoming so fatigued with flip-flopping advice that they are losing faith in science more broadly.”
Even at its best, the pursuit of expertise is a very human endeavor, subject to human frailty while experts strive to retain their objectivity. But credibility suffers even more when we discover some scientists who brazenly let their supposed objectivity be compromised by naked ideology and personal beliefs.
How many of us noticed ideology at the forefront during the summer of 2020—a time when health and medical experts were warning the public to avoid mass public gatherings, lest contagion spread and thousands be put at risk of severe illness and death? Yet, in the heat of the pandemic, more than 1,250 “public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders” signed a public letter declaring their full support of Black Lives Matter mass gatherings, protests, and rallies, stating, “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.”
Who can deny that such statements did not devastate the credibility and perceived objectivity of the health science community? Is it any surprise that families barred from attending a loved one’s funeral because of “social distancing” restrictions would no longer take seriously the proclamations of such public health professionals?
Activism and social engineering ideologies can even corrupt the hard sciences. Consider the transgender movement. Seeing gender ideology infect and corrupt his own field, biologist Colin Wright wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2020,
The time for politeness on this issue has passed. Biologists and medical professionals need to stand up for the empirical reality of biological sex. When authoritative scientific institutions ignore or deny empirical fact in the name of social accommodation, it is an egregious betrayal to the scientific community they represent. It undermines public trust in science, and it is dangerously harmful to those most vulnerable.
Echoing the same sentiment, microbiologist and author Alex Berezow wrote in October 2021 for BigThink.com, “Scientific journals are supposed to be the gatekeepers of objective facts, not cheerleaders for moral crusades or voguish ideologies. Kowtowing to academia’s political zeitgeist is not something that a medical journal—or anyscholarly journal—ought to do. Yet, increasingly, that is exactly what they are doing. This is dangerous.”
Indeed, too many of today’s scientists come across as exactly that: partisans in a moral crusade, more interested in pulling citizens into their cause than objectively informing citizens so that they can make up their own minds.
To be sure, not all scientists are activists. But too many are—often the most public of them. And the impact on the public’s trust is overwhelming.
Distrust of experts has driven some to the Internet and social media, as they aim to root out for themselves the truth on these complicated matters. They search for articles, watch videos, sign up for email newsletters, and may even begin to feel that they have gained enough expertise, themselves, to know the real truth of these issues. It is as if they feel they have earned a degree from Google College or YouTube University.
But have they? All too often, innocent and inexperienced people turn to self-appointed experts who are in fact lesscredible than the ones in the media spotlight. Others turn to social media, selecting for themselves the “experts” they want to hear and avoiding those with whom they are predisposed to disagree. Doing so creates a dangerous “echo chamber” effect, which reinforces what we already believe and keeps us sheltered from what may turn out to be unpleasant truths.
Of course, people will naturally claim, These guys on my favorite podcasts or videos are different. They’re not corrupted by government money. Yet such individuals often do have vitamins or a book to sell. And some are willing to be wrong for free!
Let’s not misunderstand. The minority voice on a matter is sometimes the right one. Science grows as minority views are heard, examined, and proven. But some experts are in the minority precisely because others have proven them wrong—perhaps sincerely wrong, but still wrong.
Thus, we encounter a difficult problem. If even the best scientists sometimes make grave mistakes, even in articles undergoing properly performed peer review, how is a layperson supposed to evaluate the statements of scientists with an agenda—an agenda passionately believed, yet no more passionately believed than the agendas of their scientific opponents?
In many ways, the manner in which many “educate” themselves on the Internet reflects a sense of the Apostle Paul’s prophecy of the end times, when people would heap up teachers for themselves who will teach them things they want to hear instead of the truth (2 Timothy 4:3–4). His warning is akin to Isaiah’s prophecy describing people who only want to hear things smooth to their tastes, even if what they hear is ultimately untrue (Isaiah 30:10).
Still, our world is complex. We need expertise. We need guidance. We need trustworthy and truly credible leaders and specialists. We can’t go it alone.
The problem seems intractable. And, humanly speaking, it might truly be unsolvable. The complicated and interdependent nature of modern civilization requires us to place our trust in others—but an honest and unflinching eye compels us to agree with the prophet Jeremiah, whom God inspired to record a sad but accurate summary of human nature: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
But we need not speak just humanly, nor rely on human hearts. God promises that His Son will return to a world adrift in a sea of confusion, falsehoods, and corrupted credibility, to establish a new society founded on a radical commitment to truth. Ruling under the perfect Jesus Christ will be His perfected saints, some of whom will have paid the ultimate price in this life for their devotion to truth (Revelation 20:4; cf. John 17:17). Glorified like their Savior at their resurrection, they will stand ready to serve for a thousand years in all the ways today’s leaders fail to do so. At that time, God will begin to write His own laws on the hearts of humanity, shaping them to reflect His own perfect character (Hebrews 10:16–17). There will be no more credibility crisis.
Until then, we can only seek to follow God in our lives today, ask for the humility to avoid the deceptions of our own Jeremiah 17:9 hearts, and pray for the wisdom to find the narrow path in a confusing world (Matthew 7:13–14), as well as for His grace to protect us when we make our mistakes. For those who truly and sincerely ask, He promises that He will provide (vv. 7–11). And there is no credibility crisis with Him.