For much of the past year, Trump relied on pandemic management advice from Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and former professor at Stanford University Medical Center. Although Atlas had no prior knowledge of infectious diseases, encouraging marginal ideas, and questioning basic safety measures such as wearing masks, he led the national public health response for telling the president what he wanted to hear. Atlas isn’t the only medical professional holding back the fight against the virus. News outlets across the country have published stories of local doctors refusing to wear masks. It was recently revealed that in southern California, hit by a pandemic, 20 percent of doctors and nurses have refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, denying strong scientific evidence that the vaccine is safe.
Many people have seen growing hostility towards experts in the US, but a lesser known and more worrying trend has been the complicity of professionals qualified to discredit themselves. As a sociologist studying professionals and professional misconduct, I shouldn’t be surprised that doctors and lawyers are capable of such ruthlessness. In my own research, the rejection of expert responsibility has exacerbated economic inequality, political injustice, and other social ills around the world. Even so, the damage that certain professionals are doing to our country at this moment is amazing, even to me.
Recent events represent a profound betrayal of the social contract between professionals and the public. For centuries, societies have granted a small group of professionals special privileges, such as authority and autonomy, in return for their promise to use these skills to advance the common good. Enforcing this obligation is the goal of professional associations and government licensing authorities. They set standards for quality and ethics as well as for sanctions against misconduct. The professions were entrusted with self-government, provided that practitioners would use their powers only in the public interest – which is usually explicitly stated in their codes of conduct.
This regulation always had its shortcomings: for example, some professions appeared to use their powers primarily to ward off competitors and enable other forms of rental search. But that was accepted to protect the public from quacks and madmen. If self-regulating cartels like medical and bar associations ever kept their promise to protect the public, now is the time to do so.
In recent years, however, specialist societies have become less and less willing to use their sanctioning power. My research shows that many contemporary professionals are well versed in “creative compliance” – they circumvent the boundaries of formal regulations or find gray areas that they can exploit. The result is a climate in which professionals’ betrayal of longstanding commitments to the public interest increasingly goes unchecked.