Yet I believe that this is badly to misplace the issue, which has much more to do with the social character of thought and knowledge. If we were to plunge directly into a scientific debate about vaccines, virtually every layperson could soon be shown to be out of their depth. At some point, all of us have to take someone else’s word for it. The difference between anti-vaxxers and the rest of the population typically lies less in their level of smarts than in their level of trust in authorities.
Trump’s argument against vaccines works because people no longer trust the authorities—the governments, the scientists, the medical professionals, etc.—who tell them that they are safe. The biased mainstream media, the liberal elite, lying politicians, activist judges, crony capitalists, politically correct academics, the conspiring government, scientists bought off by big business, hypocritical religious leaders: all are radically corrupt, motivated by self-interest, and radically untrustworthy. In such a situation, people’s realm of trust can become more tribal in character, focusing upon people of their own class, background, friendship groups, family, locality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. and deeply suspicious of and antagonistic towards people who do not belong to those groups. This collapse of trust hasn’t occurred because the general public has suddenly become expert in the science behind vaccinations and discovered the authorities’ claims concerning vaccines to be scientifically inaccurate. The trust that has been lost was never directed primarily at such scientific claims. Rather, it was a trust in the persons and agencies that presented us with them.
Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.
Once again, when information overwhelms us and traditional gatekeepers are no longer trusted, we can renegotiate our networks of trust and find a new sense of orientation in tight-knit communities. In my recent ebook on the ‘new storytellers’, I described the manner in which many—Christian women especially—now turn to a class of people who act as what one might call ‘super-peers’ in order to navigate the confusing new world without trustworthy authorities. These ‘super-peers’ are typically untrained non-experts, whose significance arises from a situation of alienation between traditional Christian gatekeepers and persons in the pew.
The power of these ‘super-peers’ is the power of trust. Many of these ‘super-peers’ are advocates for women, who contrast with the pastors and churches they believe have betrayed them (most recently in their open support for the misogynist Trump). They give voice to truths that have been officially suppressed or downplayed—to the truth of women’s sense of marginalization in the Church and to the truth of abuse. These ‘super-peer’ women are ‘peers’ who are relatable and likeable, who form close communities and ideological consensuses around themselves. They are typically near in age to most of their followers, not least because there is a crisis of alienation between the generations in many churches, and people are looking for leaders of their own generation, rather than attending to fathers and mothers in the faith.