Fauci can’t use science to excuse his missteps

Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said Friday he opposes a federal vaccine mandate but that the velocity of COVID-19's spread should spur private organizations to think about requiring shots. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM/TNS)
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Ramesh Ponnuru Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser and the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, keeps saying that his critics are “really criticizing science because I represent science.” Maybe he even believes it. But it might be time for science to find another spokesman.

It’s not necessary to bear Fauci any ill will — to think he has anything other than the best interests of Americans at heart, let alone to credit Lara Logan’s demented suggestion that he can be likened to Josef Mengele — to wonder whether his public statements are doing more harm than good at this point.

He arguably served a valuable function at the outset of the pandemic by explaining the situation, and offering reassurance, to those many Americans who had no confidence in former President Donald Trump. Fauci can’t do the same thing for those many Americans who have no confidence in Biden, though, since they tend not to put much stock in what the doctor has to say either. It’s hard to imagine that any of the vaccine-hesitant are waiting for one more Sunday-show appearance by Fauci before they will (as they almost all should) get shots. And there are plenty of other doctors and scientists who can and do speak with knowledge and insight about new developments in the pandemic.

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Fauci has also dealt some blows to his own credibility. His journalistic defenders concede only that he is not “perfect,” but the truth is more disturbing than that. The lead exhibit in the anti-Faucists’ case is his flip-flop on masks: He discouraged their use early in 2020 but then became an evangelist for them. (Details here.) The change wasn’t the result of any new scientific finding about the efficacy of masks. He has subsequently emphasized that he wanted to ensure that health-care workers didn’t run out of masks. But what he said was that they were ineffective. At best, his explanation suggests that he was misleading the public for what he thought was its own good.

It’s not the only time he has tailored his remarks about COVID-19 to elicit a desired reaction from the public, or said so. He issued steadily increasing estimates of the vaccination rate needed to achieve herd immunity, and said that he did so partly to encourage more vaccination and partly because polls indicated the public was growing more confident in the vaccines. Whether or not it’s justified — or at least excusable — this kind of manipulation is self-undermining. The closer the intended subjects of the manipulation pay attention, the less it will work.

Obviously it’s not science, considered either as a method or a body of knowledge, that has compelled Fauci to say what he has said about masks and herd immunity, and his decisions should not be immune from criticism because he “represents science.” While arguing with politicians, he is being demagogic himself.

But the attitude he has expressed is merely an exaggerated form of one that pervades the public-health world and has great influence beyond it. How many times has “following the science” been presented as an adequate answer to the challenges of COVID-19? Science has produced nearly miraculous vaccines, but it can’t tell us to take them, since it can’t compel us to care about our own or other people’s health. It certainly can’t tell us how to proceed in the presence of doubt. It can’t settle how to judge trade-offs, whether they involve eating steak (the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines forbid medium-rare) or setting policies related to COVID.

What we need from the public-health bureaucracy right now is not hectoring about our behavior or lectures about the value of science. It’s action; especially making rapid antigen tests cheap and widely available. That’s the kind of mission that requires great contributions from experts. Very little of it has to be done on television.

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ABOUT THE WRITER
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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