Repeating ‘listen to the science’ won’t undo the damage Trump has done

The last things we need are arguments that pit science against the economy, science against democracy, science against individual rights, science against religion, or science against the intuitions of citizens. Such juxtapositions helped create the mess we’re in.

Of course, no one who says “listen to the scientists” — a phrase President-elect Joe Biden has invoked often — is trying to stoke conflicts of this sort. And the scientists are entirely right that masks are good, large gatherings in bars are stupid, social distancing is essential and, more broadly, we simply cannot live in ways that pretend there is little danger out there.

Put differently, the choice between listening to Trump and right-wing denialist governors or listening to Anthony S. Fauci is no choice at all. The right answer is Fauci, and he will now be reinforced by the able coronavirus task force Biden announced last month.

But we need to understand that the election we just had points to a country far more divided on how to grapple with the pandemic than many of us would like.

The Edison exit poll put an interesting question to voters about their priorities concerning the pandemic, asking which of two approaches was “more important.” The result: 52 percent said “containing the coronavirus now, even if it hurts the economy,” while 42 percent said “rebuilding the economy now, even if it hurts efforts to contain the coronavirus.” Biden won about four-fifths of the first group; Trump won more than three-quarters of the second.

And if you wonder how a president whose failings are as obvious as Trump’s could add more than 11 million votes to his 2016 total, consider that when voters were asked to name the issue that mattered most to them, 35 percent named the economy and just 17 percent named the pandemic. Trump got more than 80 percent of the economy voters, Biden more than 80 percent of the pandemic voters.

This suggests that despite his lethal bungling of the covid-19 crisis, Trump actually picked up support by framing the issue before the voters as an either/or showdown between subduing the virus and boosting the economy. Many Americans seemed to respond to “listen to the scientists” by saying: “But what about my job, my house, my income?”

Biden has tried to make the case — correctly — that defeating the virus is a prerequisite of economic recovery and that falling back into the catastrophic spread we confront now can only set back the cause of job creation. But Trump’s poisonous casting of experts as indifferent to the struggles on Main Street got real traction. It’s incumbent on Biden and his team to change the terms of the discussion.

Their efforts should begin by highlighting the economy every chance they get — by fighting for economic relief now and additional help and stimulus after Biden is inaugurated; by rolling out longer-term programs to assist those whose lives have been most disrupted by the pandemic, including the young; and by proposing a GI Bill and pay-and-benefit increases for those whose work we have finally discovered is “essential.”

Ending the pandemic and reviving the economy must always be mentioned in the same breath as part of the same fight.

But we also need greater clarity about the role of scientists and other experts in a democracy. As the great liberal philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin wrote, there are “vast regions of reality which only scientific methods, hypotheses, established truths, can reveal, account for, explain, and indeed control.” Yes, God bless the scientists.

Yet Berlin also insisted “that not everything, in practice, can be . . . grasped by the sciences. . . . Natural science cannot answer all questions.”

To move forward, we need Berlin’s sense of balance. We should robustly defend science against attacks rooted in anti-intellectualism and political opportunism. But here’s what the wisest scientists (including Fauci) have always understood: Their work is a form of service to a public good whose definition is determined not by science but by democratic deliberation, debate and persuasion. They know that we are more likely to listen to experts — and political leaders — who themselves know how to listen.

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