A few thoughts on the social function of trust in the establishment. I don’t mean to offend anyone, and I’m not 100% sure about this, but this is what I think so far.
My kids were riding their bikes with the neighbors the other day, and pretending that the cops were pulling them over for speeding. “If you’re going too fast, the police will give you a ticket and take you to jail!” my son said. “Yeah,” his friend chimed in, “or shoot you!” His mother was horrified, and rushed in to explain that police only use force if it’s really necessary, and usually they’re very nice and they help people. I’ve seen this reaction in kids before, especially when we lived in a couple of bad downtown neighborhoods–every time the police drove by, the kids would hide, or warn their parents. We also had a friend from Rwanda who was terrified of the police, because in his country, if the police pulled you over, they were probably going to beat you up. We had to convince him that things weren’t like that in America. In America, you might run into an occasional bad cop, but he was the excpection, not the rule. In America, we trust the police.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the function of trust in modern society. We know that some policemen are corrupt or incompetent, but in general we trust them. We know that the government can be corrupt or incompetent, but in general we trust it–or at least, we trust the FDA, the court system, the surgeon general, and other systems that keep things running smoothly. Even a conservative who distrusts big government is likely to assume that, in general, our food and products are safe, our justice and voting systems are fair, and our police are lawful. It’s almost like a social contract that keeps the whole system afloat.
I think the vaccine debate is a good example of the chaos that results when people are no longer willing to start from a default position of trusting the systems we’ve set in place. I’m not advocating blind trust in the establishment; I try to do some research on my own, and question anything that doesn’t sound right to me. But in general, I trust mainstream American medicine, and I trust the FDA. Without a baseline trust in the FDA, we’d have to make every medical and nutritional choice on our own, and most of us are not qualified to do that. (Plus, who has the time and energy?) When I see stories like this, about the FDA, the Postal Service (!), and the Consumer Protection Branch of the DOJ exposing a man who sold commercial bleach as a miracle cure, I’m very grateful for the way our government functions.
It’s becoming fashionable to resort to a default of suspicion rather than trust when we think about the medical establishment. Aside from the fact that very few of us are knowledgeable enough to reasonably challenge commonly accepted medical practices, this creates a huge practical problem–how can society function without this common ground? How can our government or doctors be effective if they are constantly being forced to prove their qualifications? Obviously, they must prove their fitness for authority before they are given their position; but once a doctor has earned his MD, or the FDA has rigorously tested a medical treatment and approved it, what sense does it make to assume they are out to get us, unless we have a good reason to think so?