It is too early to know what the long-term consequences of the coronavirus crisis will be for public attitudes toward expertise. While one imagines that the faster-than-expected development of vaccines will boost the prestige of pharmaceutical scientists, it is harder to predict how attitudes toward government organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might change. At the moment, trust is not especially high — and it has declined over the past year.

How reputationally catastrophic, for example, will early missteps prove to be? As the newsletter Lessons From the Crisis recently reminded readers, Western institutions, including the CDC, treated Asian countries’ widespread mask usage as a kind of native superstition, unfounded in science. In February 2020, Jayne O’Donnell of USA Today paraphrased Anthony Fauci thus: “The masks sold at drugstores aren’t even good enough to truly protect anyone.” The University of North Carolina information scientist Zeynep Tufekci, whose coverage for The New York Times of the government’s response to Covid has been outstanding, analyzed the incoherence of CDC messaging in March 2020: “Of course masks work — maybe not perfectly and not all to the same degree, but they provide some protection.”

We’ve learned a lot since then, obviously, and the CDC has worked hard to persuade the public to wear masks. But it has continued to offer what to many seems like bizarre, inconsistent, or even deliberately misleading advice, drawing criticism from such competing experts as Leana Wen, the former Baltimore City health commissioner. One of the more flagrant instances of the CDC’s confusing tactics was recently unpacked by the Times’s David Leonhardt. According to the CDC, “less than 10 percent” of coronavirus transmission occurs outside. True enough: In fact, the number is something like 0.1 percent. As Leonhardt writes, “Saying that less than 10 percent of Covid transmission occurs outdoors is akin to saying that sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year. (The actual worldwide number is around 150.) It’s both true and deceiving.”

Whatever the motivation, this sort of imprecision can help to create monsters — conspiracy theories, paranoia, reflexive distrust of science and scientists, antinomian refusals of reasonable public-health guidelines. Consider the vaccine denialist and mask skeptic Mark Crispin Miller, who has adduced the CDC’s volte-face on masking as evidence for their larger untrustworthiness. Miller, a media-studies professor at NYU who teaches a popular course on propaganda, is admittedly an extreme case. He was moved to ask recently: “Is Sars-COV-2 a fake virus? That argument deserves a hearing.” Check out Mark Dery’s recent exploration of Miller’s strange career.

The Latest

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Tenure Denial

It is happening again. A little more than six years since Steven Salaita was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his extramural political speech — an episode that remains the most severe violation of academic freedom at an American university in recent years — Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times journalist behind “The 1619 Project,” has been denied tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of journalism on what appear to be blatantly political grounds. In both cases, the will of faculty members was overridden by upper administrators or university-board members — often with no relationship to the worlds of scholarship, research, or teaching. At UNC, the board of trustees does not contain a single academic.

At stake is the right of faculty members at public colleges to operate independently of increasingly politicized governing boards. As Silke-Maria Weineck writes in The Review, “the battle over Hannah-Jones’s tenure is a crucial one — the war, like all wars, is about autonomy.” For its part, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education announced that it is investigating the matter, which it understands in terms of academic freedom: “When decisions on academic tenure incorporate a form of political litmus test, this freedom is gravely compromised.” When Hannah-Jones’s hiring was announced, the conservative James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal lobbied for a reversal. So far, it’s gotten its way.

In the longer history of the American university, both faculty governance and academic freedom were hard won, never absolute, and perpetually under threat. In 2015, it might have been hoped that the Salaita affair was an aberration. In 2021, professors must face the very real possibility that the institution of faculty autonomy will be eclipsed, once and for all, by politics.

Recommended:

  • “The point of all our posting and all our talking is only to mask our stalking.” At The Yale Review, Becca Rothfeld on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, and Rachel, her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend.
  • “It is a quirk of literary history that the cutting edge of twenty-first-century Anglophone literary fiction looks so very similar to the shishōsetsu of early twentieth-century Japan.” At the Boston Review, Houman Barekat on the resemblance between the Japanese “I-novel” and contemporary Western (and Japanese) “autofiction.”
  • “The incandescence of love has shone so brilliantly in his films because of the encroaching darkness.” At 4Columns, Blair McClendon on the director Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin