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Why has public trust been so eroded among many?

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

I have absolutely no expertise on viruses or vaccinations. The last biology course I took was in grade 9. I would have great difficulty reading most of the latest scientific journal articles or understanding them, and I would need experts to translate the information they contain into language I can understand. In short, I rely on experts. I need to. But I also rely on experts I know and trust to assess the expertise of their peers, especially when politics or ideology seems to be distorting the latter in any way.

Thankfully, I had medical and scientific experts in my circle whom I could trust for sound advice, so, after weighing their advice, I decided to get double vaccinated last year.

Their advice echoed the overwhelming majority of medical and scientific experts who have been telling us that the new vaccines are not fool-proof or without risks, but are still very much worthwhile for most people above a certain age, especially for those who have underlying conditions, or who interact with at-risk populations.

So why are some people so hesitant to be vaccinated? Why is their trust in medical experts and public health authorities apparently so eroded?

I can speak about this issue with greater confidence because it is a topic I have spent much time thinking about and reflecting on (in various contexts), and because I have extended family members and friends who are in this category whom I cannot write off, as others have, as “stupid,” “selfish,” “anti-scientific,” etc. I also feel obligated to speak out on this issue. Why? Because the Canadian Prime Minister has unjustifiably and irresponsibly described many people I know and love as disproportionately racist and misogynist, etc. And the French President has said similar things, and other leaders worse.

I know many people, some of them very well, in a wide range of risk-benefit circumstances, who have chosen not to be vaccinated, at least at this time, for a wide range of reasons. None of them - not a single one - fit within the scapegoating caricatures painted by Macron or Trudeau. These leaders may well be reacting to hate and heckling they receive from a vocal minority of angry citizens. It may be understandable that they respond in like manner, but it is inexcusable in leaders. Moreover, they ignore — at their peril and ours — the lessons of history, of the injustice and danger of lumping people together as a group and reducing all of them to the worst traits — perceived or real — that can be found among them. Certainly, such comments and behavior do nothing to convince people we care about to reconsider their assessment of the merits of COVID vaccination.

Such incredible failures of leadership and blatant acts of “misinformation” further erode trust in public authorities, among unvaccinated and vaccinated alike. They give the appearance of looking for scapegoats to blame for the continuation of a pandemic we can mitigate but not control, for the use of untested drastic measures that may prove more harmful than helpful, or to deflect responsibility for failures to address the long pre-existing weaknesses of our healthcare systems (failures that have put dedicated medical professionals under increasing pressure). Granted, there are no easy fixes and responsibility for such failures extend from political leaders to citizens who demand that the next generation or someone else pay for difficult decisions that need to be made.

Regardless, for those who don’t have vaccine-hesitant loved-ones in their circles, or only know of anti-vaxers who fit the caricatures, I would like to share one more very good reason (among many more I might share later) why trust in public authorities has been so deeply eroded among some very intelligent, thoughtful, selfless people.

That reason is this: the attempts to censor nuanced (i.e. precise) information or prevent accurate information from circulating or, worse, ad hominem attacks on scientists and medical doctors who want to merely avoid overstating their case.

(I have long told my students to be careful not to overstate your case or you will lose it - unless you only want to “preach to the choir” or position yourself as “in the know” or “on the right side”. And I try to follow this rule myself.)

A quote from the article that helped prompt this post:

“Nevertheless, it’s not the first time that a Canadian scientific agency has been accused of “anti-vax” sentiments merely for presenting a nuanced view of vaccine safety.”

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