In Defense of Doubt during a Pandemic: Experts, Institutional ‘Failures,’ and Trusting Ourselves
“So, are you both excited to be fully vaccinated?!” the nurse asked us enthusiastically as she handed us the ‘I got vaccinated!’ stickers they were giving out.
We responded honestly saying “not really, but it seems as though it will now be necessary to make life easier.” Her look of disappointment and bewilderment was immediately palpable.
“We just don’t know yet the long-term effects of something like this so it’s still uncertain,” we added.
“But, you were vaccinated as a child, were you not?”
We replied yes but noted how this one was different. The nurse then went on to say how this is exactly the same as all vaccines and gave us the same speech we had heard over and over by medical professionals and government leaders encouraging the public to get vaccinated against the virus.
She then concluded her speech with a statement that particularly struck a nerve with me.
With all the certainty in the world and not an inch of doubt, she said: “Well, we need to trust the medical minds and science. They know what is best for us and they really are the only way we can survive this.”
What bothered me most wasn’t that I just didn’t agree with her. This wasn’t about being pro-vaccine or not; it wasn’t a matter of opinion. It was that what she was expressing to me and my partner (and probably every single person who was vaccinated by her) wasn’t just her particular views on the vaccine but rather, according to her, the ultimate Truth. Her certainty, confidence, and blind faith in what she had been told by those in power was one thing but, to then dismiss all of our doubts and questioning by stating how medical elites ‘know what is best for us,’ that, to me, is where it gets dangerous.
The nurse’s statements went beyond arrogance and spoke to what is so dangerous about the era we are now entering where any doubt or questioning of the decision-making behind the medical establishment and scientific authorities is automatically taken as an affront sparking outrage, ridicule, and cancellation.
“Listen to the Experts”
We have heard this adage before. Since Science became the mainstream knowledge system and Academia became the mainstream institution in charge of creating Truth and Knowledge, listening to and trusting the experts has been ‘common sense’ for most of us since childhood. However, since the start of the pandemic, following Expert advice has gone beyond adage and common sense and has become something sacred, fundamental to all discourses, and to be upheld above all other considerations, similar to the word of God or Human Rights. It has also garnered a cult-like following, where its many devotees pledge allegiance to any and all statements made by ‘the Experts’ and any doubt or questioning is quickly dismissed and ridiculed.
What is so interesting and paradoxical about what is going on right now with the pandemic and trusting experts is that it comes at the very same time that many of the institutions we once trusted and listened to are now being exposed for the harms and abuses they had failed to address or even kept hidden for many years now. Thanks to social movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, the Police force, Academia, the film industry, and countless sports organizations are just a few of the many institutions finally being held accountable for the harmful behavior they had tolerated from their members.
While some institutions like the Police Force have finally been called out for the underlying systemic racism and toxic culture that makes up the institution, Experts in Academia, sports, or medicine have yet to identify or even admit that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way they do things within their institutional spaces.
For example, when former USAG physician Larry Nassar was exposed for molesting over 400 gymnasts, many rightfully blamed the institutions responsible for employing, defending, and continually exposing Nassar to the young gymnasts. USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, and Karolyi Ranch are just a couple of the many institutions who were aware of Nassar’s abuses but did nothing. Many who report this story in the media like Kerry Howley for the Cut, refer to this case a “a story of institutional failure,” where victims over 3 decades had been telling members of the university, the gymnastics team, USAG, and even the local police force and FBI what had been going on at the hands of Nassar and yet, no one did anything about it.
But what is implied when we frame this case, and many other cases just like this one, where abuse and bad behavior is tolerated for decades as one of ‘institutional failure?’ It fundamentally implies that, normally, in a fully functioning institution, the policies, procedures, and general oversight inherent to the institution would have found out about the abuse going on (or rather, would have actually listened to the gymnasts) and would have held Nassar and all who defended him responsible for their actions. But, since none of this happened (it actually took widespread exposure of the abuses and silencing by The Indianapolis Star to get the institutions responsible to react), many are now framing this case as one where the institutions have merely ‘failed’ the victims through inaction.
There are several things that are wrong with this framing of the issue. For one, it simply is not true. The institutions did not fail victims. Rather, as I will argue in this blog, they actually facilitated this and all other forms of bad behavior, abuse, and victimization because this is what happens in a system where: money, funding, and prestige matter more than character; where hubris, arrogance, and dominance are rewarded while empathy and care are penalized; where the winners really do take all in an increasingly unequal society; and where Experts are overly revered and granted god-like authority both within and outside of their respective institutions.
Institutional Failure or Facilitation?
“Your body becomes an object, something for others to commandeer, probe, measure, observe, manipulate – a thing. Although it is your most intimate creation, it is now foreign to you, and only experts are qualified to understand it.”
In 2012, Dr. Chris Duntsch, also known as Dr. Death, was responsible for maiming, and even killing in some cases, 33 patients at hospitals throughout North Texas. Duntsch was finally convicted in 2017 of maiming an elderly patient and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Since his conviction, and thanks to the 2021 Peacock series ‘Dr. Death’ chronicling Duntsch’s demise, some have revisited this case with a new lens identifying the institutions responsible for allowing Duntsch to continue harming patients. Saul Elbein of the Texas Monthly recently revisited the Duntsch case following the premiere of ‘Dr. Death’ and points to all the institutional and systemic factors that not only failed patients but rather facilitated the maiming and even killing of patients.
Elbein points to a myriad of factors that facilitated Duntsch’s harmful surgeries: the Texas Medical Board “protecting doctors from oversight or consequences;” the private equity-funded hospitals of Texas which “incentivize doing as many surgeries as possible;” and substantial tort reform insulating “hospitals from responsibility for the doctors they hired.” He concludes his article stating: “American health care conscripts nurses and doctors – not just bad apples like Duntsch, but great ones too – into a machine that treats human lives as a resource to be mined for shareholder profit. That’s the real horror story here.”
But was Duntsch just a ‘bad apple’ in a corrupt healthcare system blinded by the profit motive? Or is there something inherently wrong in our system that produces medical Experts like Dr. Chris Duntsch?
Chris Duntsch is no doubt an exceptional example of what happens when an already extremely narcissistic person is granted Expert status and, through his narcissistic delusion of grandeur, maims and kills his patients. But the way Duntsch was treated when he exhibited these sociopathic qualities by the medical institutions responsible for hiring and recommending him is in no way exceptional.
Despite the fact that he was severely lacking in actual surgical experience, hospital after hospital hired and recommended him to other places to perform surgeries that would bring in significant amounts of funding to the hospitals. Duntsch was reported to be extremely boastful, arrogant, and egotistical by his colleagues who also witnessed his incompetence in the surgery room. But none of this mattered to hospital administrators who only cared about his fifteen page long CV rife with publications, patents, and extensive funding acquired through his involvement in biotech startups.
Self-Actualization and a Misunderstanding of Maslow’s Hierarchy
“We are the motherless children in our distant father’s house, trying to find wholeness in a world that is longing for the magic and mystery of love. This is our story.”
Having worked in academic institutions, I have seen my fair share of successful,‘rockstar’ Academics with the super long CVs rife with the only things top universities look for in employment: publications and grants. Their ambition took them to great heights and, to the general public and certainly to Academics-in-training like I was at the time, they had reached the top of the self-actualization ladder and realized their full potential as human beings. And yet, when I actually interacted or spoke to them, I always felt something was off.
Instead of being these radiant, authentic, and complete human beings full of life and passion for their work, I often found them to be rather standoffish and reserved. Some seemed withdrawn, like they were too scared to show who they are to others, while others seemed proud and boastful, like they were too important to even consider other people’s input or even presence. Either way, they all had this fundamental discomfort with being themselves in front of others, or even at all. It all seemed in total contradiction to how I thought one would be when they had reached the highest level of human potential, at least according to Maslow’s hierarchy.
If you aren’t familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a theory, you have definitely seen its application. It has informed countless NGOs working in the international development field as well as the UN in confronting world challenges. Maslow’s Hierarchy essentially identifies a series of human needs, all placed on a hierarchy where lower-level needs like access to food and housing and security need to be fulfilled before being able to move on to higher-level needs like the search for meaning and achievements like self-actualization.
While the academic credibility of Maslow’s theory remains contested, there is no doubt that many of the ideas and assumptions propagated by this theory are considered common sense in our mainstream society. The expression ‘first world problems,’ for example, speaks to this idea that, here in the first world, our basic needs for food, shelter, and iPhones are met more than in the third world and so, when we complain about our slow internet access or misplacing our phones, we are merely facing trivial ‘first world problems.’
Based on our mainstream understandings of Maslow’s theory, those granted ‘Expert’ status by our society are generally regarded as more intelligent, capable, credible, and just overall better people than the rest of us. We are socially conditioned to believe that Experts, particularly those in the medical industry, are people who have realized the highest level of human potential. We can and should (only) trust the Experts since they are some of only a few who have fully self-actualized through their ‘honorable’ dedication to Truth and Knowledge. This is common sense to many of us, particularly these days.
However, if any of these common sense beliefs we hold regarding Experts were actually true, then why would these highly accomplished people use their status to hurt, abuse, or exploit others, as Nassar, Duntsch, and many others have been accused of? Why would the system be set up in such a way that those who exhibit narcissistic qualities like arrogance, greed, and dominance are rewarded and granted Expert status while those who instead exhibit empathy and humility are penalized? And most importantly, if the ‘medical minds’ my nurse was referring to truly are our only salvation in the pandemic, why would the profit motive be so closely tied to their decision making?
In Vodou Shaman: The Haitian Way of Healing and Power, Ross Heaven describes how, in the Western world, we often make the mistake of immediately turning our attention to accomplishments at the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs once we have our basic needs met. Essentially, we skip the middle part of the hierarchy; the levels where love, belonging, community, self-respect, and respect for others are developed before moving on to the self-actualization levels. Heaven argues how the middle part of the hierarchy where love, connection, and empathy is emphasized may be the most important part in a human being’s development since it is the link between the material and spiritual worlds. He writes:
“Material needs occupy the top three levels of the pyramid, while more spiritual pursuits occupy the top three levels. What gets us from one to another is the achievement of Love and belonging, from which self-respect and the search for meaning can flow” (Heaven, 2003, p. 136).
When one skips this middle part of the hierarchy, everything they pursue, no matter how selfless or altruistic it may sound, will ultimately be in the name of personal gratification (i.e. material gains, prestige, etc.) since love and respect (for others as well as the self) is lacking. And yet, here in the West, we tend to equate long CVs, extensive educational backgrounds, and even financial success with nobility and a general better personhood.
When the parents of children who had been victimized by Larry Nassar were interviewed about their experiences with and perceptions of Nassar, many commented on how wonderful, giving, and evolved Nassar seemed to be, like as if he wasn’t even human anymore but instead a superior being with one parent noting how “he seemed like this larger-than-life, better-than-real person.[i]” By all accounts, Nassar was kind to the gymnasts and generous with his time in treating them. But it was all a façade. And this façade, along with the prestige and authority thrust upon him as ‘The Medical Expert’ for USAG and Michigan State University fooled parents into trusting their children with a known pedophile.
Uncovering the Black Box of Expertise
“Many people choose to remain on the stream bank, forever gathering data. They think they will gain enlightenment simply by accumulating information. They watch and learn but never become a part of something larger.”
“You won’t understand this stuff,” Nassar told Detective Munford who questioned him and his medical procedures in 2016 in response to complaints of sexual assault[ii]. As he explained his particular technique, involving an intravaginal procedure, Nassar would often repeat how the officer did not “need to know all that” or that she just wouldn’t be able to understand such complex medical procedures. It was like he was trying to create a smoke screen of Expertise that he could hide his transgressions behind by confusing the officer with medical lingo and, more importantly, making her feel like she was too incompetent in his area of Expertise to even have this discussion with him.
It is worth noting that Nassar, despite being trained in Osteopathy, a medical area sometimes referred to as pseudoscience by members of the medical establishment, nevertheless had the support and prestige of many in the sports medicine community. Even by 1997, Nassar had garnered so much prestige and support in the area of sports medicine that when several gymnasts came forward with complaints of sexual assault, they were all dismissed as “common medical procedure” and were sent back to Nassar’s treatment[iii]. The officer questioning him in 2016 (and who would eventually be the first to lead an official investigation against him), however, saw through Nassar’s Expertisesmoke screen and noted how not understanding his medical terminology did not matter because he still couldn’t explain why any of those injuries would require vaginal penetration to fix.
What was it exactly that Nassar professed to know so much of that industry outsiders and non-Experts like Detective Munford supposedly couldn’t even question him about? Is Nassar’s, and any physician’s for that matter, Expertise level and training so high that we cannot even question them or have a discussion about their procedures? Nassar’s case is not exceptional in the sense that everyday, people are constantly told how ill-equipped they are to make decisions about their own lives and bodies and need to consult with ‘the Experts’ in order to make an informed decision.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t speak to physicians about our physical health, to psychologists about our mental health, or to financial advisors about our finances. They all have important information to share with us that we simply do not have. But we need to remember that this is all they have to offer us. Information. Information about research, studies, and data that have worked for others in the past. None of what they offer says anything inherent about who we are and what is best for us as individuals.
What I am trying to argue is not intended to refute or discredit the knowledge and information that Experts provide us with to make our lives easier or increase our wellbeing. This is important information that only they can provide since they have extensive education and training in their area of expertise. However, even well before the pandemic but especially now with the pandemic, I feel that we have placed Experts and the knowledge they hold well above any advisor or consultant role their work is intended to be and, instead, have elevated them and their work to a dogmatic status, similar to priests, where any opinion or information provided is to be interpreted as the ultimate Truth that applies to everyone regardless of their particular situation or context. Especially with the backlash againstscience we have seen in recent years coupled with a deadly pandemic, Expert advice has now taken on a particularly moral connotation where following Experts’ recommendations is no longer just an option or choice available to us but is these days seen as the ONLY morally just and right thing to do.
I want to be very clear, once again, that I am not arguing against public health recommendations like vaccines and wearing masks. These are important measures that I’m sure help prevent the spread of the virus. However, what I am arguing against is blindly following these recommendations at the expense of learning and understanding our own bodies and being proactive about our health, particularly when facing a deadly virus.
What I am referring to here speaks to the nature of our education system and how, the part of the brain responsible for developing wisdom, awareness, and intuition of ourselves and our bodies is the part that is least developed through our education system. While the left side of the brain merely helps us with rational, analytical thought in gathering information obtained through empirical means (i.e. what we can see with our two eyes), the right side of the brain is where we use our intuition, imagination, and lived experiences to develop wisdom about ourselves as individuals (Heaven, 2003, p.104). In other words, while the left side of the brain is most reliant on habit (and, in our capitalist world, making these habits most efficient), the right side of the brain is the part that actually picks up on observations made of ourselves and our lives to develop important self-knowledge that helps us not only survive but thrive in life. This type of self-knowledge is MOST crucial when it comes to life-changing, stress-inducing world events like a global pandemic.
Evidently, the type of knowledge Experts gain in our formal education system mainly centers the left side of the brain. Another way to conceptualize how limited the type of knowledge Experts have in terms of understanding our unique, individual lives in all its entirety is by defining the three levels of human consciousness, as outlined by the late systems theorist Erich Jantsch (Judith, 2004). If we took the water flowing in a river as a metaphor for life, the first level of human consciousness is the rational level where we simply sit on the riverbank and observe the water flow in the river. Knowledge is gathered through science and other empirical means. We sit by the river and gather data like how deep the water is or how fast it is running but we will never know what it actually feels like to be in the river and experience it. We will never know what it takes to survive in the river unless we jump in. Remaining by the river, observing the river and recording data, we remain separate, isolated from the energy and life of the river. Our perspective is stuck in one place.
It is not until we jump in the river that we truly experience what it is like to be alive. Our perspective shifts from observation to experience and we enter the second level of consciousness: the mythical. At the mythical level, we immerse ourselves in something much, much larger than ourselves. We can either try to swim against the current (a fool’s errand) or we can let go of control and let the force of the river take us on a journey through life. As we embrace our aliveness in the river, we enter the third level of consciousness: evolutionary. This is where we develop a deeper understanding of our connection with everything else in existence. We no longer struggle to keep our heads above water in the river of life but now thrive within it through swimming and developing a free-form dance down the river (Judith, 2004).
The knowledge gathered at the rational level is nevertheless important. We need to know how deep the water in the river is, how fast it is running, or whether there is a rapid or waterfall down the river. This is important information, similar to what Experts provide us. However, this information can never tell us what it means to be alive, how to have meaning in our lives, or how to trust ourselves in our decision making. These are all fundamental to the human experience and the answers can only be found within each one of us as individuals. No one else can give them to us, not even an internationally-acclaimed Expert.
Defending Doubt, Trusting Ourselves, and Self-Empowerment during a Pandemic
“There is a big difference between accepting a point of view because we have thought it through and agree with it and accepting it simply because of the norm. The former allows us to retain the Power of our individuality; the latter makes us drones within a social order…”
“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who claim to have found it.”
“The story of Larry Nassar is that of a man skilled at deception and a world more credulous,” writes Kerry Howley for The Cut in her piece on Larry Nassar. She argues that, along with institutional failure, Nassar’s decades-long abuses continued because of the “edifice of trust so resilient, so impermeable to common sense” that he created around himself, deceiving parents, coaches, doctors, athletes and even, at times, law enforcement.
Indeed, this is the narrative that Howley and many others in the media take when reporting on the many Experts who have been exposed for their wrongdoing towards vulnerable people. The disgraced Expert, finally caught and exposed, is now an evil mastermind who managed to ‘fool’ everyone around him through his (or her) “ingenuity” (as Howley writes about Nassar) while the institution that repeatedly sided with and protected the Expert against any complaints merely “failed” to protect the vulnerable from this ingenious mastermind. This ONE person fooled so many through their ingenuity and earned the trust of an ‘already credulous’ world, as Howley argues.
Such amazing feats of these disgraced Experts to deceive everyone around them so much that they caused the institutions in which they were a part of to fail. How convenient this narrative is to the institutions responsible for selecting, supporting, and even creating the Experts responsible for these wrongdoings. It completely absolves the system and institutions responsible for facilitating these abuses while ignoring the many ways in which we are actively encouraged by these very institutions to completely disregard our intuitions, instincts, emotional responses, and self-knowledge in favor of what their Experts have to say about us.
How many people, daily, are being told to not listen to their intuition and instead listen to the Experts just like the gymnasts were told over and over again when they complained about Nassar?
I don’t know the answer to this question but I do know that a pedophile like Nassar would not have molested gymnast Trinea Gonczar 856 times by the age of 15 in a society that empowered people to listen and trust their bodily instincts rather than repeatedly question or outright dismiss them in favor of Expert opinions and insight. A pedophile like Nassar would never have been able to molest 499 young girls in a system that actually listened to, valued, and respected the insights of the very people whose own bodies were being treated by a physician-Expert. The system and institutions responsible would have seen right through Nassar’s Expert status in listening to the gymnasts and would never have “failed” to act accordingly.
Maybe what happened with Nassar, Duntsch, and so many other powerful people granted Expert status who are now being exposed for their wrongdoings is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the disempowerment everyday people constantly face when it comes to powerful institutions. Maybe these institutional ‘failures’ extend beyond institutions like USAG and the Texas Medical Board and include our education system, cultural values, and social norms and scripts that condition us to defer to and unquestionably accept the word of Experts and other authorities before listening to ourselves. Maybe the exposure of Nassar, Duntsch, and so many others came at a crucial point in history where, along with global social movements of the years leading up to the 2020 (and ongoing) pandemic, the status quo was finally starting to be challenged regarding the amount of power we willingly give up to Experts, industry/government leaders, and other authorities in terms of determining (and constraining) the path of our lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a time of crisis for many countries and societies. It is a time where many were left out in the cold as they lost their jobs, got exposed to a deadly illness, and now face even more debt and precarious working conditions than they already were. But it is also a time of important opportunity. Opportunity for reigning authorities and institutions in government and corporations to reclaim their ‘rightful’ place as our overseers and protectors, despite the fact that they are the main entities responsible for the hardships many face in the first place. The pandemic became an important opportunity for institutions and other authorities to come in and declare themselves our saviors and remind us how ONLY they know what is best for us, how much we need them to make ends meet, or even to be able to “survive this,” in the words of my nurse. Now, they no longer need to ask but rather, demand from us our compliance, ensuring us that we need to obey them for our own survival, in the face of a deadly pandemic.
They are now supposedly in a position where they can demand that we accept everything they tell us and give us without hesitations, questions, or doubt.
Or perhaps, maybe, this isn’t so much a time of opportunity for reigning institutions but rather, a time of struggle. The truth is, even well before the pandemic even started, authorities and institutions were struggling. Their struggle for social control, order, obedience, and above all else, legitimacy in the eyes of the people has been on the rise for some time now as inequality has worsened and many come to the realization that their labor is no longer needed for the rich to make money.[iv]
Now that the worst of pandemic seems to be subsiding and we are no longer in crisis or survival mode, everyday members of the public are remembering the many years of disillusionment, broken promises and violence by those in power and are now responding by quitting. Many have quit their jobs as well as other forms of social conformity. We are more critical of the persistent insensitivity, tone deafness, and even the blatant lack of respect for everyday peoples’ lives of wealthy individuals in the media. We are more ready to call out blatantly opportunistic and empty attempts from corporations to support communities they have historically exploited and continue to exploit.
Institutional elites, corporations, and other authorities will try to paint the public’s increasingly critical response as one of cynicism, negativity, and pessimism. They will ask us to follow them instead in their quest for toxic positivity, boastful self-assuredness, optimism, and banal attempts at multicultural unity and even supposed racial justice, all of course with the purpose of continuing mindless consumption and endless productivity. But, this time, after two years of crisis and struggling to survive, their demands won’t be followed. Many cannot and will not look past the senseless traumas they went through just so CEOs and other elites can turn their millions into billions, or even billions into trillions in some cases.
It is tempting, especially if the current system works in your favor, to see our current state of affairs as one of hopelessness and endless negativity. However, I would argue the opposite. For those of us who have stood on the sidelines of academia, passively studying how things are going from bad to worse for many communities facing the destructive effects of colonialism, neoliberalism, late-stage capitalism and intergenerational trauma, this is a time of hope, for once. Divinity scholar Bruce Rogers-Vaughn describes how there are many who lost faith in the system and feel despair and yet, they practice hope. He further notes how “[…] ironically, despair is a precondition for hoping” (Rogers-Vaughn, 2020, p.164).
Hope is not optimism. Optimism, particularly in the neoliberal sense, calls for an arrogant self-assuredness and confidence in the successful outcome of the future as long as one follows the prescribed, Expert-approved “best practices” (Rogers-Vaughn, 2020, p.165). It exclusively centers on individual success and on the outcome of things rather than the process.
Hope, on the other hand, is about feelings and intuition rather than self-assured attitudes and trusting in the process enough to expect something good to happen, eventually. It does not rely on ‘evidence-based best practices’ and instead calls for us to be patient, follow our hearts, and trust in something that we cannot prove or provide evidence for.
Most importantly, hope is a relational activity. It inherently implies trusting that things will get better not just for certain individuals but for entire communities. Hope relies on the belonging, community, self-respect, and respect for others that is developed in the middle part of Maslow’s hierarchy. As Bruce Rogers-Vaughn (2020, p.165) notes: “…hope is not for the sake of ‘me myself’…it dwells on the plane of love.”
Heaven, Ross. (2003). Vodou Shaman: The Haitian Way of Healing and Power. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.
Judith, Anodea. (2004). Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self. New York: Celestial Arts, Random House, Inc.
Rogers-Vaughn, Bruce. (2020) “Caring for Souls Within the Dark Web,” in: Postcolonial Images of Spiritual Care: A Contribution to the Readings in the Field, ed. Emmanuel Y. Lartey and Hellena Moon. San Jose, CA: Pickwick Publications, 2020.