When experts or agencies deliver information to the public that they consider possibly or definitively false to further a larger, often well-meaning agenda, they are telling what is called a noble lie. Although the teller’s intentions may be pure—for example, a feeling of urgency that behavioral change is needed among the lay public—the consequences can undermine not only those intentions but also public trust in experts and science.
Even though his [Anthony Fauci’s] comments were made to influence public actions to get more people vaccinated (a noble effort), the central dilemma remains: Do we want public health officials to report facts and uncertainties transparently? Or do we want them to shape information, via nudges, to influence the public to take specific actions? The former fosters an open and honest dialogue with the public to facilitate democratic policymaking. The second subverts the very idea of a democracy and implies that those who set the rules or shape the media narrative are justified in depriving the public of information that they may consider or value differently.
Aside from whether it’s right to tell noble lies in the service of eliciting socially beneficial behavior, there is also the question of efficacy. Experts on infectious diseases are not necessarily experts on social behavior. Even if we accept Fauci’s claim that he downplayed the importance of wearing masks because he didn’t want to unleash a run on masks, we might wonder how he knew that his noble lie would be more effective than simply being honest and explaining to people why it was important to assure an adequate supply of masks for medical workers.
— Kerrington Powell and Vinay Prasad, The Noble Lies of COVID-19
Slate, 28 Quintilis 2021