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These days, it’s hard to figure out who to believe, what to believe, and how to persuade others to believe.

For many, the coronavirus pandemic has been an exercise in epistemic whiplash. At the outset, the public was told to continue normal life and not buy masks; then they were told to lock down and always wear masks. Effective COVID vaccines were created, but many people rejected them in whole or in part, including high-profile politicians and podcasters like Joe Rogan.

Social media has enabled scientists to share their findings directly with the public, but it has also led to confusion and conspiracy theories as people attempt to sort through an avalanche of complex and conflicting content. In this hyper-politicized information environment, experts like Anthony Fauci have been alternately lionized and demonized. Taken together, it feels like we are experiencing an unprecedented breakdown in scientific trust. But are we?

For decades, Steven Shapin has taught the history of science at Harvard University, where I was fortunate to be his student. Among other publications, he is the author of the fantastically titled book Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People With Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority. In other words, he’s been studying the exact problems we are facing today for his entire career.

We sat down to discuss why some people trust podcasters over professors, how Joe Rogan and other iconoclasts tap into the myth of Galileo, and why “following the science” is a lot harder than it sounds. What follows is an edited excerpt of our conversation.

Yair Rosenberg: I want to start with a really easy question: Should we trust the science? Yes or no.

Steven Shapin: So one of the reasons that journalists don’t listen to people like me is we don’t trade in sound bites. But here’s the issue. We both know that saying that you’re “following the science” seems like a very intelligent, reasonable thing to do. You want people to follow the science. You want to criticize people by saying that they’re not following the science. That’s the point at which I want to say it’s really complicated. But it’s complicated in what I hope is an interesting way.

Let’s stick with COVID. When people say they’re “following the science,” I think they generally mean: Here are certain facts consensually attested about the virus, about the R0 of the virus, about the immune system, about the spike protein, about mutations and variants, etc. Now, here’s where I think it becomes complicated. COVID is a virus that infects people, and that infection flows along the same channels as people’s interaction with each other. Hence the mask, the six feet of distance, or whatever you have. So there is a science about the virus, there’s a science about the immune system, and there’s a science about the spike protein. But in order for this science to be followed, it has to include the science of how people interact with each other. In other words, there has got to be a science of the virus, and there’s also got to be a science of society. We don’t hear much about that second bit.

Rosenberg: But that’s how you translate the former into action. You need more than one kind of expert.

Shapin: Yeah, because infection is a social disease. But when they say “Follow the science,” people don’t generally mean sociology or social psychology. I’m not trying to sell social science, but you see the point. To most people, following the science means that there are people like Fauci who talk about the nature of the virus, infectivity, and so on. We don’t see a lot of social scientists standing up there. But when people say they’re following the science, they really mean some subset of relevant expertise.

Rosenberg: And there are actually multiple streams of expertise that are necessary to deal with complex problems.

Shapin: That’s complication number one.

Now, you’re probably wise not to have the kind of faith in social psychologists that you have in virologists, but some of the things that science about people strives to know are: How do people respond to risk? How do they perceive risk? How do they perceive risk to themselves personally as opposed to other people? How do they divide up the population according to their susceptibility to risk? And, when we get to the world of policy and telling people to interact in certain ways and not other ways: What will people do?

A lot of what people will or will not do depends on what they believe: what they believe about the virus and its infectivity, what they believe about the disease and its morbidity and mortality. And it turns out that what they believe—not just when it comes to COVID—depends on what they are told by whom, and with what authority. This is why, if you’ve been following the U.K. case, when the prime minister has parties in 10 Downing Street while other people are not allowed to be with their loved ones as they’re dying, it affects policy because people are being told how to behave by someone who doesn’t behave that way themselves. And there are other cases of that sort.

So the trustworthiness of sources has got a lot to do with the credibility of messages. In a way, the question of following the science goes in a circle: What people are willing to do depends upon what they believe, and what they believe depends upon the sources of authority that tell them things.

A mad scientist injects an apple with a sinister syringe
“In this house, we do our own research.” (Getty)

Rosenberg: This is where I feel like history can be helpful. I think many of us see this situation and feel it’s extremely vexing. But it’s actually how science has always worked—which is to say, everything comes down to trust and credibility within a system and within a discourse. To put it extremely crudely, you could have two people who come up with the same scientific insight, but depending on how they convey it, and their place in the social system, that insight could be accepted or rejected.

Shapin: Absolutely.

Rosenberg: So I’m curious if you could speak more to that taxonomy of trust and put it in its historical context.

Shapin: Look, whatever we know about the natural world—which includes the virus and the orbits of the planets, and so on—comes from human sources. These subjects are practically solved for all of us when we’re young by our parents. They’re practically solved later on as we grow up by our teachers at all levels. That’s true for Dr. Fauci and that’s true for Professor Shapin, and it is true for anybody else. We’re no different in that respect. We don’t know things directly. We know things through trusted sources.

So part of the science that’s relevant in this situation is the science of credibility: how credibility is established, how people come to know things. One of the things I think that people mean by following the science is, “Look, there’s this guy, Fauci; he knows what he’s talking about, believe him. Look, there’s this guy, Trump; he doesn’t know what he’s talking about; don’t believe him.” The problem we have today is a radical splintering in sources that speak about the world. In a sense, we’ve always had this, but now we’ve got such a diversity of voices that we’re asking laypeople to decide between Joe Rogan and Trump and Fauci, and determine who is speaking the truth about the virus. It’s a hard thing to do!

But if I may speak in policy terms, we’ve got to find ways for “right-thinking people” to speak more convincingly. And there’s a science of that, as well as an art of doing that. It’s desperately needed. We should take it as seriously as we take the spike protein. And I don’t think we are. I think we should take very seriously that there is a science—provisional, not as consensual as the science of spike protein—about people’s beliefs and perceptions. And we should respect people who speak well about that, even though they may be wrong from time to time. I think we’re not doing that. I think we’ve got to take credibility and trust seriously.

Rosenberg: In other words, you might think that Joe Rogan is imparting mistaken information about the virus, but you might learn from him about how to convince an audience to believe certain things and how to get an audience to listen, because clearly he has mastered that.

Shapin: I think so.

There’s also an interesting relationship between Joe Rogan and Donald Trump on the one hand and—if you want a historical example—Galileo. One of the things that we’re taught in school is the idea of speaking truth to power. And that’s what we’re told Galileo does. He’s a lone voice. We like the idea of the lone genius. Okay, I think that idea is wrong. I think it’s misguided. But the idea of the lone genius of iconoclasm, of skepticism, is so powerfully attached in the public mind to science. And so in the public mind, the voice that speaks up and asks, “What about hydroxychloroquine?” or says, “This is all a Chinese plot,” attaches to this idea of the lone voice standing against the orthodoxy, while scientific orthodoxy and consensus get cast as conspiracy. In other words, we’re in the world of the Zionist plot.

Rosenberg: So Rogan is actually tapping into the scientific mythos with his anti-establishment stances.

Shapin: This gets attached to the idea that science is supposed to be about being skeptical of everything. If you asked the public about the scientific method, you’d probably get something like that: Be skeptical; don’t believe anything. Like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” But this means that all the scientific consensus that my colleagues find to be powerful evidence of truth—on climate change, on vaccine science—can, in the popular mind, especially in the febrile environment in which we live, be taken as evidence of conspiracy.

Rosenberg: It sounds like you don’t think people are losing trust in science, per se, just that they understand science and its sources rather differently.

Shapin: Take vaccines. A lot of people have heard things about side effects. We may believe the statistics about their safety, but most knowledge we get is along the lines of “My Aunt Sadie, she was in bed for three days.” Or “I heard that pregnant women …” — you know how that goes. In response, one might say, “No, you should believe the science.” But that’s the way we get our science! Teachers, the internet, and well-attested anecdotes from trusted people, including neighbors and relatives.

So we’ve got the right relatives and teachers, and we’d say our opposition has got the wrong relatives and teachers. But I think qualitatively, we’re behaving in much the same way, where we’re identifying different trustworthy sources. I don’t think that we’re following this science and other people are not. The problem is the nature of science that’s being followed. There’s a lot of science [floating] about—some of which we like, some of which we don’t think of as science.

I think the situation is so serious that we need voices to help identify what the problem is. Because if I am right or even vaguely right, then the practical things that we can be doing and should be doing look a little different from pounding the table and saying “Follow the science.” They’re finding out a lot about people.

Rosenberg: We need to identify sources of authority in different communities and ways to reach people through them, rather than assuming everyone shares the same sources of authority.

Shapin: Exactly. Now, I think it’s really wrong that people believe Joe Rogan and Trump, but I understand, and I think we should all understand, why they do this, and how we might hope to move them. It’s going to take a lot of work; it’s going to take a lot of time. But we need the right science in this, and that involves the science of credibility and the science of people—their beliefs, their perceptions, their emotions, and the science of how people come to know science.

Rosenberg: I think a lot of this comes down to a myth that circulates in my own field of journalism and also in academia, which is this naive notion that good ideas sell themselves.

Shapin: It’s nonsense.

Rosenberg: Yeah, it’s completely false! It’s always been false. But people really want to believe it. You want to think that the truth stands for itself. But in fact, the truth needs a lot of help. And it needs skillful people to convey it.

Shapin: It needs a face, it needs PowerPoints, it needs metaphors, it needs analogies. It needs a face of sympathy, and a face that says, “I am caring about you and we are all in this together.” Because America is so divided, it’s very difficult to talk about that. But if you want to ask people to believe something, and to do something based on that belief, you’ve got to show that you care. And you’ve got to show that we’re all doing our bit. It’s following the science of credibility as well as the science of viruses. But it bloody well is complicated.

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