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Opinion Scientists’ world of truth and knowledge couldn’t be further from Trump’s

President Trump speaks with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing at the White House on April 17.
President Trump speaks with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing at the White House on April 17. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Scientific fields such as seismology and the study of hurricanes demonstrate that horrible, deadly things can also be fascinating. Epidemiology falls squarely in that category.

Consider a recent Chinese study that traced a cluster of covid-19 infections to a restaurant in Guangzhou. On Jan. 24, a total of 91 people (83 customers, eight staff) were together at lunchtime in a third-floor, air-conditioned room. The source of the disease, whom the researchers call A1, had returned from Wuhan the day before. Eventually nine others (four members from family A, three from family B and two from family C) came down sick.

If covid-19 was truly aerosolized, tiny, virus-laden droplets could linger in the air and travel long distances. Infections could have taken place anywhere in the restaurant. Instead, the researchers found that infections traveled along the airflow from the air conditioner. This makes it more likely that larger droplets that remain in the air for a shorter time were responsible for the spread. “We conclude,” the report said, “that in this outbreak, droplet transmission was prompted by air-conditioned ventilation. The key factor for infection was the direction of the airflow.”

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What does that mean? It is a bad idea to overgeneralize from a single study. But if the virus is spread by larger droplets that travel shorter distances, it means that social distancing isn’t hopeless. Staying out of the path of those droplets is a realistic task. Better air circulation and wider distances between tables at restaurants might eventually make a positive difference when we begin returning to normal life.

A study such as this leaves me with admiration and more than a little envy. Scientific knowledge is often difficult to gather, interpret or apply. But the scientific profession at least seeks access to a shared reality. The virus is carried on the air conditioning flow or it is not. The vaccine works or it doesn’t. Scientific truth can be elusive. But the idea of objective knowledge is not itself under assault.

Medicine has a moral clarity that makes politics look ever muddier in comparison. Consider the contrast at the daily White House briefing. On those rare occasions when the scientists are given center stage, they impart useful knowledge and present their best judgments. Their goal — seeking public health — is unconflicted. They are precise, forthright, solid and reliable.

President Trump’s goal — on the days that one is discernible — is the maintenance of power. His method is to claim personal credit for anything that goes right, to blame others for anything that goes wrong, and to complain, and complain, and complain about his shockingly bad treatment at the hands of the media, his political enemies and the “deep state.” He does not argue for his view of events. He pounds his points with the oral equivalent of all-caps. And he assumes (on good evidence) that anyone who shares his side in the culture war will embrace his delusional, self-serving depiction of reality. Or that people will at least conclude that no one’s version of reality can really be trusted.

Trump unfiltered is like a badly polluted canal. The scraps of narcissism, the rotten remnants of conspiracy theories, the offal of sour grievance, the half-eaten bits of resentment flow by. They do not cohere. But they move in the same, insistent current of self, self, self.

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The president wants credit for listening to health experts on social distancing when he had no other choice. He also wants to send a theatrical online wink and nod to the populist opponents of social distancing: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!”

Will his double game result in risky behavior and additional deaths in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia? This seems beside the point. Trump is not making an argument. He is assuming a pose. He wants to be president and provocateur. He wants to be fireman and arsonist. He contradicts himself. He is large. He contains multitudes.

In the coronavirus crisis, the scientists are not only our best hope of solving practical problems related to treatment and testing. They are reminders of a moral universe where truth matters, where responsibility is accepted and where a commitment to the common good can be assumed. It is fast becoming a requirement of public health and national sanity: Let the scientists have the briefing stage. Alone.

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