How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Annoying Questions #3: Fauci as Hero, Wokeness, Men & Conspiracy, Statue Pulling in 2090

I’m trying out something new for the Friday emails for the rest of this summer in the Northern Hemisphere. If you haven’t already, let me know what you think of it.

The Four Ways a Scientist Can Have a Conversation on Twitter

A great thread about how it’s important to be explicit — sentence by sentence — about which parts you are bringing to Twitter when. (HT/Shelby)

Ask a Woman Before Tweeting

In this paper we evaluate differences in COVID-19 conspiracy theory beliefs. We find that women are significantly less likely than men to endorse COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and that this gender difference cuts across party lines. Our analysis suggests this gender gap is partially explained by two dispositional factors—learned helplessness and conspiratorial thinking.”

Should Fauci Quit? or, Is He a New Kind of Science-Hero?

On the quitting question, Joel Mathis argues it would be the best thing he could do for the country’s public health:

Quitting would allow Fauci to speak to the public more freely about the ongoing health crisis than he can now. Even without an official portfolio, he would almost certainly still be welcome on any news network, podcast, YouTube channel, or newspaper op-ed page to sound the alarm and make the case for what he believes is the correct approach to containing the pandemic. He wouldn’t even have to criticize Trump directly, since he clearly seems averse to doing so. But he would have the freedom to offer his best advice to the American public, who right now seem more willing than the president to take Fauci seriously.

Fauci, of course, is finding ingenious ways to keep speaking out, and the White House seems to be embarrassed by its (even for it) ham-fisted attempt to smear the good doctor earlier this week. So it doesn’t seem as if he’ll continue to be muzzled, although the winds of (in)tolerance shift rapidly.

The point, though, makes me think about the kinds of value that rise with scarcity, and I think Fauci now fits into that camp. He’s a scientist-hero under fire now, and grows more heroic (and precious) as our access to him diminishes.

The combination of hero and scientist traditionally makes scientists nervous (even as they selectively engage in hero worship). Stuart Richie and Hilda Bastian, both writing about John Ioannides and his myopic (perhaps pig-headed) mistakes about infection rates and COVID-19, say science heroism is unequivocally dangerous to the basic functioning of science. We’ve all heard these arguments: Science is collective; everyone’s findings should be held up for scrutiny; healthy science relies on the freedom to self-correct; and hero worship gets in the way of understanding all the above.

Fauci today meets Bastian’s personal definition of heroism: “prosocial behavior, that’s altruistic, struggling against odds, and despite serious risks to the individual.” So the more he’s attacked, the more heroic and essential he seems. But it’s no accident that the Trump administration is attacking him for his perceived errors on COVID-19 — scientists usually become heroes because people begin to think they’re infallible and/or they consistently have special insights. (Fauci hasn’t gone out of his way to dismiss this framing.)

The difference with Fauci is that, while he’s a scientist, his heroism has been for science communication — giving the best available knowledge at the moment. I think this is a crucial distinction — if you speak for the state of science (which is always self-correcting) instead of digging in behind a set of findings, the public will more readily forgive you when you’re “wrong” about masks or asymptomatic transmission, two areas Fauci took positions on early in the pandemic that he had to back off from later.

So we might be seeing a new kind of science hero: the science communicator hero. Which speaks well for the public understanding of science and is ultimately good for science, no matter where Fauci works or doesn’t.

Could We Have Seen White Wokeness Coming? or, Is the Trump Era Really More Racist?

Andrew Gelman points to a 2019 post by sociologist Jay Livingston that runs through the results of a report on race in the US the Pew Foundation published April last year. While lots of people see the Trump presidency as giving license if not comfort and aid to racism, the Pew report showed clear signals that Whites in the US had, from 2016 to 2019, gotten more woke — at least in their perception of the major factors for why “Black people may have a harder time getting ahead than White people.”

For instance: 54 percent of Whites in 2019 told Pew that “racial discrimination,” whereas only 36 percent of Whites said that in 2016. Conversely, while 43 percent of Whites in 2016 said “lack of motivation to work hard,” only 22 percent were saying that in 2019 — with similar declines for similar “culture of poverty” explanations of the Black-White economic disparity. Livingston asks:

If both Whites and Blacks are paying more attention to racial discrimination and less to personal-cultural factors, if everyone is more woke, how does this square with the widely held perception that in the era of Trump, racism is on the rise? (In the Pew survey, 56% over all and 49% of Whites said Trump has made race relations worse. In no group, even self-identified conservatives, does anything coming even close to a majority say that Trump has made race relations better.)

The data here points to a more complex view of recent history. The nastiest of the racists may have felt freer to express themselves in word and deed. And when they do, they make the news. Hence the widespread perception that race relations have deteriorated. But surveys can tell us what we don’t see on the news and Twitter. And in this case what they tell us is that the overall trend among Whites has been towards more liberal views on the causes of race differences in who gets ahead.

Gelman himself last year also wrote about a seemingly sudden and deceptive shift in the answer to the General Social Survey question about whether the US is “spending too much/too little/about the right amount” on “improving the conditions of Blacks” and “aid to Blacks”:

Matt Yglesias made similar notes in a huge takeout for Vox I missed when it came out last year.

None of this is to suggest that the BLM protests after the death of George Floyd were not catalytic — they clearly were. But it does start to explain why now and not at any point before this. It also begs the question: Are Whites really more racist three years into the Trump Era, or collectively less racist but more aware of racism?

Which Statues Will We Be Pulling Down in 2090?

Nicholas Kristof hopes that the current climate of statue removal prompts us to reckon with our own moral blind spots — enduring cruelty to factory-farmed animals first among them. Livingston (an excellent blogger) wonders in response whether progressives in 2090 will be “tearing down the statues of Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg or demanding that the John Lewis School of Civil Rights change its name — all because these one-time heroes ate meat, often two or three times a day!”

If we could speak to the protestors, would we tell them, “Wait. These were good people, the best. Back in 2020, we didn’t realize how cruel and how disastrous for the planet meat production was. We didn’t apply 2090 moral codes to animals.”

Their reply: “Yes, that’s precisely the point. Your morality was wrong, and we are not going honor those who lived by it. What’s painful to admit is that we waited till now to take these long overdue actions. After all, we’ve known all along that these people were straight-up meat eaters.”

Nicely disorienting.