By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS—The late U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs Jr., D-Indiana, once told me something that has stuck with me.
“It’s wise not to lock the steering wheel in life,” Andy said, “because the road does bend.”
That marvelous sentence of Andy’s has been lodged in my head while the flap over Dr. Anthony Fauci’s emails has played out. Thousands of Fauci’s emails were released a few days ago following Freedom of Information Act requests from several news organizations, most notably Buzzfeed and The Washington Post.
Following the emails’ release, the cliché about them that emerged was that they serve as a kind of Rorschach test—a series of cultural inkblots that help reveal the political leanings of those reading them.
Conservatives—particularly those deep in the thrall of former President Donald Trump—see them as evidence of Fauci’s hypocrisy and duplicity. One Indiana legislator couldn’t wait to rush onto social media to proclaim Fauci a “fraud” and say he had known it all along. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, proclaimed that Fauci should be fired and claimed that the proof of Fauci’s “dishonesty” vindicated Paul’s judgment.
Progressives see something else in the emails. They see a renowned medical professional and seasoned operator in the ways of the bureaucracy trying to steer the country toward dealing with a huge health threat while coping with the increasingly frantic demands of a president fighting for his political life.
As is the case with all Rorschach tests, the ways people see them reveal more about the people than they do about the tests.
Conservatives and Trump lovers see what they want and expect to see.
Progressives and Trump despisers see what they want and expect to see.
But it’s also possible that the inkblot here is just an inkblot. It’s possible the tale of Anthony Fauci’s emails is just what it seems to be, the story of a fallible human being doing his best to adhere to his training as he tries to pick his way through a path strewn with new and confounding dangers.
Sometimes, he got lost. Sometimes, he changed course when a better route presented itself. Sometimes, he just had to guess what the best way forward would be.
That, I think, is what has confounded the Fauci skeptics from the beginning. They can be found on both the right and the left—although there are more of them on the right than the left. They live in worlds of absolute certainty, of easily revealed and apprehended truths.
But that’s not the world Anthony Fauci inhabits.
His training and the long habits of mind his decades in public health have ingrained in him tell him that the certainty, particularly at the beginning of a process of discovery, is the enemy. If one sets out to find a “truth”—say, just for the purposes of discussion, that masks cannot contain an airborne virus in any way—one will find confirmation of that “truth,” regardless of what the preponderance of the evidence might otherwise suggest.
That’s because the person doing the search is looking for one thing and one thing only, so he or she will ignore everything that is not that one thing.
We have seen this again and again—perhaps most notably in the debate about our nation’s gun laws. Because gun advocates start from a position that firearms can’t be part of our gun violence problem, they see only factoids and evidence, often wrenched out of context, that “proves” they are right.
But Fauci doesn’t operate that way. One thing that struck me as I read through his emails is how often he qualifies what he’s saying by using words such as “probably” and “it may be.”
He knows that arriving at a truth is often a process of elimination. One tries many possible solutions to a problem, dispensing with, one by one, all those that do not work. The trick is to approach the problem with an open mind so that one sees what the data reveal, not what one hopes to see.
That’s a big part of the reason ideologues and rabid partisans have so much trouble not just with Fauci but with the ambiguities and complexities of this complex world.
They want to lock life’s steering wheel.
And the road keeps bending.
FOOTNOTE: John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
The City-County Observer posted this article without bias or editing.