When people don’t fully understand a particular branch of science or scientific inquiry (which we imagine must be most non-scientists), “following the science” comes down to making an informed leap of faith. There is nothing wrong with that. Leaps of faith are necessary on a daily basis in every part of life. Without them, we would be unable to function as individuals or as a society. However, we want our leaps to be as short, unstressful, and error-free as possible. We might speak about life as a series of cautious assumptions and educated guesses because it is impossible to know very much with absolute certainty.
For example, I will take NASA at its word when it tells me something about Mars. And I will believe my lawyer when he tells me my best chance is to settle out of court. This is because I have more confidence in NASA when it comes to space and in my lawyer when it comes to lawsuits than I do in myself (or in other non-experts) regarding those areas. The leap of faith I have to make seems small and therefore less subject to error because I know NASA is an expert space organization and my lawyer has a professional license to practice law. I could persuasively cite NASA in a paper on space and my lawyer in a paper on litigation.
Conversely, I will not reference NASA on settling a lawsuit or my lawyer on exploring Mars. They might have opinions about those things, but because they have no authority to speak professionally about them, my leap of faith in the credibility of their claims would be too great, stressful, and subject to error. I might enjoy their opinions, but I wouldn’t cite them as documentation or support in a paper.
Opinions outside one’s field of expertise carry far less weight. When I taught college-level rhetoric, I’d talk to students about the true purposes of legitimate sourcing and documentation in their essays—not primarily to provide additional reading or resources, but to establish credibility and authority on the part of the writer and, by extension, within his or her claim structure.
You can claim anything in a paper, but you will only be persuasive if you can support those claims with authoritative references (where the leap of faith you’re asking the reader to make is small and easy). If I want to say something about Mars, I will show you how NASA agrees with me. If I want to make a point about an aspect of law, I will show you how my lawyer wrote an article on it in The American Lawyer. Their expertise, authority, and credibility will give my argument an aura of expertise, authority, and credibility. This is a powerful aspect of persuasive rhetoric. We encounter it all the time, formally and informally.
Unfortunately, when it comes to “following the science” about Covid, the authority of scientists and national health experts has been eroded by a range of political and social counter-arguments, usually employing what we call the fallacy of “Faulty Comparison.” Faulty Comparison is bad logic that draws an equals sign between things that should not be presented as equal.
Using the above example, if I wrote, “NASA says that Mars rocks are highly radioactive, but my lawyer says they aren’t. Now it is unclear who to believe,” it wouldn’t be hard to see the bad logic. I’m making a Faulty Comparison between what NASA thinks about space and what my lawyer thinks about space. Then on the basis of that faulty comparison, I’m claiming it is impossible to tell who is more credible. One opinion is clearly credible (that of NASA) and has persuasive weight. The other (that of my lawyer) does not. They should not be presented as persuasively equal. And there should be no confusion about where the shorter, less stressful, and less error-prone leap of faith can be made.
But if I use a politician or faith leader to attack the expertise of NASA, it’s a bit harder to spot the fallacy: “NASA says Mars rocks are highly radioactive, but the President and Reverend Osteen both disagree. What, then, can we safely believe?” That’s still bad rhetoric, but it widens the necessary leap of faith and generates stress in the audience, especially if the audience strongly supports the President and Reverend Osteen. The politician’s and minister’s expertise are being presented as carrying equal weight about Mars as that of NASA on the subject. It’s an example of Faulty Comparison, but it’s slightly hidden.
Trump and his staff made a lot of Faulty Comparisons during his Administration, claiming “fake news” and “alternate facts” as a way of neutralizing negative press and keeping their political base activated and incensed. They tried to make necessary and appropriate leaps of faith as difficult and stressful as possible by politicizing Covid data and playing on the already existing suspicions that academics and experts are inherent leftists or even crypto-Marxists (which isn’t always false but isn’t as uniformly true as many on the right seem to believe) acting in bad faith.
Asking Trump or Kellyanne Conway or Biden or Pelosi about the nature or behavior of Covid is like asking your lawyer about Mars. Their political and bureaucratic authority does not translate into scientific authority. Putting faith in their pronouncements about the virus is not the same as putting your faith in the Center for Disease Control on the subject. This also includes questions of mask protocol and vaccines.
Rhetorically, the leap of faith is much smaller when you do “follow the science,” even if it’s still an act of faith, an assumption that someone knows more or is better than you when it comes to a subject in which you are ignorant. By sourcing the most credible authorities, you are, in effect, asking NASA about Mars and your lawyer about law. You are making the most reasonable assumption, the most educated guess about a subject you do not understand.