The Corner

Politics & Policy

Fauci and the ‘Noble Lie’

You should read this essay on trust and manipulation in public-health policy by Kerrington Powell and Vinay Prasad.

A key point is that expertise is non-transferable: Even if we accept that it is ethical for public figures to mislead the public for the public’s own good, being an expert in infectious diseases does not give you any special insight into other complex questions, such as public behavior. People who are high achievers in one field mistakenly believe that they possess a kind of generalized cleverness applicable to other areas of endeavor — call it Krugman’s Fallacy.

(I would say that I do not believe that it is ethical for public figures to mislead the public for the public’s own good — but isn’t that what I would say if I did?)

The authors conclude:

Noble lies—small untruths—yield unpredictable outcomes. Nietzsche once wrote, “Not that you lied to me, but that I no longer believe you, has shaken me.” Public health messaging is predicated on trust, which overcomes the enormous complexity of the scientific literature, creating an opportunity to communicate initiatives effectively. Still, violation of this trust renders the communication unreliable. When trust is shattered, messaging is no longer clear and straightforward, and instead results in the audience trying to reverse-engineer the statement based on their view of the speaker’s intent. Simply put, noble lies can rob confidence from the public, leading to confusion, a loss of credibility, conspiracy theories, and obfuscated policy.

Noble lies are a trap. We cannot predict the public’s behavior, and loss of trust is devastating.


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