Trust in Fauci and the CDC Falls as Partisan Gap Widens

Fear, misinformation and the widening political divide over science and expertise threaten our democracy, experts say

Misinformation, fear, and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus are conspiring to deepen the partisan divide in America and further sow distrust in government and expert advice from scientists and health officials, new polling reveals. The growing political gap, deepening general distrust, and ever-more outrageous claims by the White House threaten the very foundations of democracy, a growing chorus of experts worry.

Just 67% of Americans say they trust the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a great deal or a fair amount, down from 83% in April. Trust in Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, fell from 78% to 68%.

The partisan divide increased during that time, the new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows. Trust in the CDC is now 74% among Democrats and just 60% for Republicans. Fauci’s trust level is 86% among Democrats and 48% with Republicans. Independents fall near the middle on both measures.

Politics over science

The CDC and the Food & Drug Administration have been roiled in recent weeks by internal missteps and accusations by scientists of bowing to political pressure from the White House.

In the new poll, 39% say the FDA pays too much attention to politics, and 42% say that about the CDC. Democrats were significantly more inclined to say so on both accounts. Meanwhile, some 85% of Democrats and 35% of Republicans worry that political pressure from President Donald Trump will cause the FDA to rush a coronavirus vaccine before it’s safe. (FDA leader Dr. Stephen Hahn has said that won’t happen.)

Misinformation and conspiracy theories are driving much of the distrust, just as many experts have feared would be the case. Among the Covid-19 myths and conspiracy theories that scientists have debunked: it was made in a lab on purpose as a bioweapon; the pandemic has been fabricated to weaken Trump’s presidency; Bill Gates is behind it all to boost vaccine sales.

“As people consume more information online, the pandemic is not only changing the geographical and physical manifestations of politics,” writes Nina Jankowicz, who studies disinformation at the Wilson Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington DC. “It is pushing American discourse deeper into the depths of disinformation that threaten democracy itself.”

While there’s no solid evidence that conspiracism is more rampant today than in the past, there is one big difference, critics charge: It’s being fueled by misinformation from the White House, and that makes it potentially dangerous to democracy itself.

One example, Jankowicz writes: “The President’s claims that mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud, potentially involving foreign states, are false, and sharing them leads to increased distrust in the infrastructure of US democracy.”

In their book A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, Nancy Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead write about a “new conspiracism” that doesn’t even try to explain events that actually happened, which is typical of classic conspiracy theories, but rather makes simple yet unsupported claims of rigged elections, evil people in the other party or, more recently, unproven Covid-19 treatments.

“The conspiracists’ assault on common sense produces disorientation,” Rosenblum and Muirhead write in the preface of the 2019 paperback edition. “It creates a deep polarization about what it means to know something — a divide more unbridgeable than partisan polarization, for it becomes impossible to persuade, compromise, and even to disagree.”

The dangers of misinformation

False claims from on high fuel inaccurate beliefs that directly affect public health.

In the Kaiser poll, 20% of people said they believe that wearing a face mask is harmful to their health, and 16% do not think masks help limit the spread of the coronavirus. Another 14% believe there’s already a cure for the coronavirus, and 7% think a Covid-19 vaccine has been approved by the FDA. None of those things is true.

Nearly one-fourth of Americans still think hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for Covid-19, including 51% of Republicans and 8% of Democrats. Despite the drug being promoted by President Trump, studies find it is not an effective treatment for Covid-19, and the FDA cautions against its use for treating Covid-19.

Experts do not expect a coronavirus vaccine to be ready for wide distribution this year, but they do view one as the most likely way out of the pandemic, given inconsistent and inadequate efforts to encourage social distancing, avoiding large crowds, and masks.

Yet when asked if they would get the vaccine should it be available before Election Day, 54% of Americans said no, including 46% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans.

Behind all these doubts? Fear over the pandemic, political polarization and the easy spread of misinformation, which have combined to cause people to “attribute partisan motivations to public health measures,” security researchers Herbert Lin and Harold Trinkunas wrote yesterday in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “Epidemics and pandemics have always caused widespread alarm, fear, and overreaction,” they point out, but they argue that the digital ecosystem “amplifies the significance of psychological vulnerabilities long present in all human beings,” making people more apt to rejection rational and authoritative information. With Covid-19, “alarm, fear, and overreaction are greatly exacerbated by technology,” they contend.

Can America recover?

Trust in the efficacy of a vaccine is seen as vital by the medical community and epidemiologists, who study the spread of infectious diseases. If a safe and effective vaccine is not created, or if too few people get the shot, the coronavirus will continue to spread, potentially killing one million or more people in the United States, the scientists say.

The Kaiser poll, released Sept. 10, was conducted between Aug. 28 and Sept. 3, before revelations that President Trump had purposely downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus, which critics charge is just one example of how he has sowed distrust in science and misled Americans on a deadly health crisis, largely refusing to wear a mask himself and often disparaging governors who took early and extensive steps to reduce Covid-19 transmission.

“To stop the spread of a deadly virus, it’s essential to be honest and tell the public what we know, when we know it,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC, said yesterday. “People need practical guidance based on science to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.”

More broadly, Rosenblum told me in an interview last month, the misinformation spread by the new type of conspiracism delegitimizes foundational institutions — government, academia, science — by painting the other side as evil, as with one conspiracy theory that says Democrats eat their children. People may not fully believe such claims, she says, but they’re “true enough” to fuel further division and hatred. “Once you see the political opposition as heinous, you’ve taken a giant step away from the requirements of democracy,” she said.

I asked Rosenblum if she thinks America can recover from the growing divide.

“I think yes,” she said. “But it’s going to take a long time.”

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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