More fundamentally, my wariness toward seeing the glass half-full is grounded in the experience of the past generation. Unfortunately, that experience offers ample reason to be pessimistic about the next one. People who feel that the pandemic is going to “break the fever” of the last couple decades—that it will finally drain public life of its malice, its addiction to remorseless conflict and conspiracy theory, its devil-take-the-hindmost nihilism—carry the burden of proof. I’d like to buy it but can’t yet.
What if instead of ushering in a new era of respect for science—including the obvious truth that most policy questions around science involve mixed evidence and relative probabilities rather than absolute certainties—the next several years are marked by a distorted, dishonest, told-you-so debate over the pandemic? What if instead of launching a new season of public interest, a weak economy leaves little money or political will to solve long-deferred problems like climate change? What if this cataclysm makes us even more selfish and short-term in our thinking?
In short: What if we’re screwed?