Governor Chris Christie’s media grabbing, grandstanding proclamations about Ebola reminded me of Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal’s sand berms in 2010. Not that there is any relation between the Ebola virus and piles of sand, but the connection is that these two politicians received advice from acknowledged experts in their respective fields and then promptly ignored it ostensibly because the governors “just knew what made sense.” I can imagine the thought process in each case could have gone something like, “Damn the scientists and engineers, I know what makes sense in my gut, and have to be seen as a leader in this crisis.”
In the case of Jindal, his crisis was a real on – the BP oil disaster of 2010. His plan was to divert resources to create massive sand berms that he was confident would protect the coastline from advancing oil. The only problem was that the experts in the field were united and unambiguous in their opinion that the berms would do nothing to stop the oil. Nevertheless, Jindal was undaunted by this advice and made frequent media appearances vociferously advocating for the berms. In the end, the berms were built but the engineers and scientists were proven to be correct – they did nothing to stop the oil. Not surprisingly, Jindal never acknowledged his responsibility for wasting resources on the fool’s errand of building the berms. Jindal’s irrational actions were the subject of a previous posting in 2010.
Although Jindal’s and Christie’s actions are driven by the same rejection of expert advice, Christie’s recent actions regarding the needless, irrational quarantine of Kaci Hickox was not in response to a recognized crisis. To be clear, Ebola is a crisis in West Africa but certainly not in America. The CDC knows that, the WHO knows that and any person objectively considering the scientific and medical evidence knows that.
Why then did Christie react as he did? For the same reason Jindal reacted the way he did. Certainly politics was at the core of their reactions. The thought is that people like to be lead in a crisis by a decisive leader who sees no shades of gray. I think that’s probably true. It was certainly true in World War 2 when the enemy was clear and response was unambiguous. There is no place for nuance on the battlefield.
However, the BP oil spill and responding to Ebola in New Jersey are laden with nuance. It may seem intuitive that putting sand in front of the oil would stop its progress or that quarantining a person coming from an Ebola area is just common sense. But that’s the problem. A properly informed person should be able to look at the facts and make a decision that is evidence-based and not emotion-based. Responding to one’s gut feeling is rarely the best idea especially when the voices of the experts are united in telling you that your gut is wrong.
The problem is that decisive actions by politicians, regardless of their validity, often make excellent sound bites. Unfortunately, people may be even less informed than the politicians and be quite comfortable with their emotion-based leadership. What we have in that situation is a classic positive feedback loop. Maybe that’s why some election outcomes seem so peculiar because facts and evidence are tertiary considerations at best.
Another factor at play is that Republican’s tend not to embrace science as evidenced by only six percent of scientists identifying themselves as Republicans. Chris Mooney has written persuasively on the psychological and neurophysiologic differences between conservatives and progressives and argues that progressives rank high on openness while conservatives prefer definitive closure. With that psychological backdrop, it’s no wonder that Christie and Jindal reject the scientific consensus and opt for actions that decisively close the debate – at least in their minds.
It must be beyond challenging for a person that listens to experts, understands nuance, and recognizes that sometimes the best response to a situation is not waving their arms in from of a camera promoting gossamer umbrellas for the sky that “they now in their gut” will be imminently falling. I know it’s hard for me to watch such spectacle, but I can’t fathom how hard it is for a President that believes in experts and science to have to respond to the demagoguery of politicians driven by their gut and advancing spurious arguments that detract from finding real resolutions to problems.
 Jindal’s berms: Critical thinking and politics, https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2010/12/17/jindals_sand_berms
 Chris Christie Stuck Her In ‘Prison,’ So Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox Says She’ll Sue, http://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2014/10/27/chris-christie-stuck-her-in-prison-so-ebola-nurse-says-shell-sue/
 Pew Research, http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-4-scientists-politics-and-religion/
 The Republican Brain, http://chriscmooney.com/books/the-republican-brain/