Can you self-identify as a coronavirus expert?

An open letter from ‘scientists’ doing the rounds is signed by mathematicians, astronomers and students.



‘Scientists say UK virus strategy is “risking lives”’, warned a BBC headline at the weekend, citing an open letter signed by over 200 people. ‘Hundreds of scientists have written to the government urging them to introduce tougher measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19’, according to the opening paragraph of the piece.

But further down the article it becomes clear that the scientific experts cited by the BBC had no expertise in virology whatsoever. In one paragraph, the article admits that the open letter was signed by ‘no leading experts in the science of the spread of diseases’.

The bulk of the signatories are actually mathematicians. This should have been obvious from the fact that the open letter is hosted on the website of Queen Mary University of London’s maths department. Many of the signatories are still PhD students. Others are professors in fields like astronomy and computer science. Are these people clever? Most likely. But they are not experts with any specialised knowledge in the problem at hand.

The open letter and the reporting of it is a prime example of the way the media and political class abuse expertise. In the event of something like a pandemic it is absolutely right to consult experts and gain specialist advice, which, thankfully, the government is doing.

In the case of this letter, however, we are being told to put more stock in the opinions of people with no great knowledge or understanding of the issue at hand. Here, we see how ‘expert’ opinion can be abused for politician gain.

A similarly strident open letter did the media rounds at the end of last year. The BBC reported that over 11,000 ‘scientists’ had signed a paper declaring climate change to be a ‘clear and unequivocal’ emergency. But a quick glance at the names showed that some were simply made up: Mickey Mouse and Albus Dumbledore each made appearances, for instance. Meanwhile, the definition of ‘scientist’ was so broad as to include social scientists, biologists and geographers, as well as undergraduate and graduate students.

The BBC seems to have partly acknowledged its cock-up on the coronavirus letter. The headline has been amended to say ‘some’ scientists are concerned, and the disclaimer – that not a single expert in the field in question signed the letter – now appears in the second paragraph.

This should serve as a warning: not everyone who self-identifies as an expert is qualified to offer expert advice.

Picture by: Getty.

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Ian MacDonald

16th March 2020 at 9:16 pm

For balance of reporting, your article should have mentioned that on open letter from the British Society for Immunology (BSI) has also been very critical of the government’s public health policy in this area. You can read it here: I have a PhD in Immunology and they are my former professional body. They represent “over 4,200 scientists and clinicians from academia, clinical medicine and industry who study the immune system” and who most certainly are experts in this area.

It would also be balanced to inquire into the experts who are advising the government. The lead advisor on epidemiology is apparently Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. From what I can tell about his specialisation, he is more of an economic modeller than an immunologist himself. In the past he has advised Public Health England about how to use computer models to save money in making predictions about public health. Obviously computer models are cheaper than doing painstaking and timeconsuming field work, but they are limited by the assumptions you feed into them. On Channel 4 last week, Professsor Edmunds seemed to be making the lazy assumption that herd immunity to SARS-CoV-2 is possible. Any immunologist could tell you that simply isn’t known at this point in time, and that there is good evidence to the contrary.

So it is possible that the “experts” advising the UK government are making an argument of the form “we fed the assumption into our computer model that people get better from this virus, and it predicted that people get better”. That isn’t even science. Computer models need to be validated against data, and not enough is available because the virus has only been known for 3 months.

I regret to say that in pointing out the inadequacies (as you see it) of one group of experts, while failing to report the clear advice of real experts in the field, and lazily assuming the government’s advisors are giving good advice, I find your article dangerously imbalanced.

Dave Jones

14th April 2020 at 4:26 am

I appreciate you are adding valid arguments to be weighed in with everything else.
However it’s the governments choice what it does with any advice, and most people (usually… in democracies) support them to make decisions on our behalf, it’s all voters who all have skin in the game. Biomedical experts will be advising on the public health risks from COVID-19, economic/risk experts will be advising on the public health risks of the lockdown/shutdown economy. We need to be minimising the sum of both of these health risks. This isn’t just about COVID-19, this is about people’s lives – lost life-days of all people from all causes – with what is now unprecedented self-imposed “economic warfare” on any nation, let alone most of the world economy (no, not really fair to call it warfare, but the effects on people’s lives will be just the same, similarly to “biological warfare” on lives from COVID-19). Just on the ability to fund future healthcare systems this is a massive risk, on top of risks to homelessness/despair/suicide/addiction/domestic abuse by people looking after themselves/families/dependants in our economies. To be clear I am giving 0% weight to the financial side for money’s sake. This is lives-vs-lives and not lives-vs-money whatsoever. This is about risks to all of our lives from all causes, and how to find the most likely path to minimise all loss of life. Sure, we want to hear about all the data and modelling available, but no expert should say “do this now” when they are only looking at the risks from one factor, i.e. SARS-CoV-2, what path we chose is not their call to make. They should be saying “this is the range of all possible options, these are the best estimates of the risks from each (or distribution of risks from each)” – and then get back to getting more data, making more predictions, and making those predictions better – with the government doing what they are qualified to do – make decisions on country wide risk, dealing with ever present uncertainty as best they can, on our behalf. Not just “do this to minimise deaths from COVID-19, or else”.


16th March 2020 at 6:17 pm

When I was a child my parents listened to the Today programme hosted by Jack de Manio and every so often an ‘expert’ would be produced to comment on something-so the BBC has form for this sort of thing. It became so ubiquitous that Monty Python even had a character called Ann Expert who was played by John Cleese.

Paul Winfield

17th March 2020 at 8:45 pm

The definition of an expert is thus – “x” being an unknown number, “spurt” being a drip under pressure.

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