This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.

One of the things that a career in journalism teaches you is just how little you know.

I was reminded of that as I joined other Americans and people around the world in plowing through confusing and sometimes contradictory information about COVID-19 and how big of threat it poses.

Who should Americans rely on for information and guidance? How do we distinguish between real science and alarmist hooey? What sources have relevant credentials and reliable records?

When you’re an editor or reporter, those are the kinds of questions you ask and answer as you collect information and sources for many kinds of stories.

They aren’t usually tough questions, but we live in a time when a good chunk of Americans show clear disdain for expertise.

Some media personalities, politicians and internet sites proudly dispute mainstream science and share conspiracy theories. They slander professionals and ridicule “elites,” implying that knowledge is something to demean, rather than respect.

I’m talking about such people as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Trish Regan, as well as elected officials such as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California.

Even as the leading experts on the spread of disease were advising Americans to take precautions to avoid illness, many of these chuckleheads were encouraging just the opposite.

Through national cable TV talk shows and radio programs, they claimed COVID-19 was just a Democratic hoax or a Chinese-North-Korean-Deep-State-Communist plot. They noted that most people survive the virus-caused disease. They urged Americans to go out and rub shoulders, party heartily and spread that virus to friends, family and strangers.

While there are partisan factors evident in the trashing of expertise, the lack of respect for knowledge goes beyond Democratic and Republican politics.

It speaks to a lack of trust in institutions, and that distrust is fueled by a variety of players.

Those players include companies selling 21st-century versions of snake oil as alternatives to conventional medicine, and they include foreign nations looking to undermine U.S. democracy. They also include media personalities looking to boost their ratings, and politicians who have more ambition than intelligence.

A wide range of special interests have financial and ideological reasons for persuading people to reject scientific facts in favor of conspiracies and propaganda.

Some, such as the TV personalities employed by Fox, have shifted their rhetoric as if on cue from the White House.

Others can be expected — regardless of how the pandemic plays out — to insist that they were right and the experts were wrong. This sort of contrivance is now common. They will reject facts that prove them wrong and focus on anecdotes and tangential statistics that support their point of view.

With this pandemic, it might be easier than usual.

As health experts have pointed out: If the United States succeeds in blunting the severity of COVID-19 by closing schools and businesses and restricting other activities, fewer people will get sick, and fewer people will die.

If that happens, critics will seize on the numbers and proclaim: See, I told you it wasn’t that bad.

Americans shouldn’t be fooled. We need to consider how we determine who is giving us reliable, truthful information.

Our world is inhabited by talented, knowledgeable people who could teach us a lot.

Perhaps a silver lining of the current pandemic is that we will learn to value expertise and pay more attention to those who can provide it.

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.