Why it is right to question the experts

The sneering at ‘armchair epidemiologists’ misunderstands how important critical debate is.

Norman Lewis

A virus is sweeping Europe: the virus of obedience.

A new intolerance is spreading. It is a kind of bigotry that suggests that those of us who are not epidemiologists should just shut the fuck up and accept and act upon what we are being told by those who are. As non-experts, we are exhorted to submit humbly to those who apparently know what is best for us – to defer to expertise and stop second-guessing uncertainty.

The sneering tone of contempt for ordinary people’s attempts to make sense of the coronavirus crisis on social media is redolent of 19th-century elitist prejudices about a natural order and the need for deference. Noah Haber, a postdoctoral researcher at the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, along with some fellow researchers, demands that we ‘flatten the curve of armchair epidemiology’. He refers to the ‘Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE)’ – the phenomenon ‘where people lack the ability to understand their lack of ability’. He pontificates further that there is ‘a new and more virulent strain called DKE-19’, which has reached ‘pandemic proportions’ and which ‘generally appears three to five days after learning that the word “epidemiology” is not the study of skin diseases’.

It is not just the malice and deeply condescending tone of these champions of expertise that should spark anger. It is their attempt to close down debate that is most troubling. Because that is precisely the opposite of what should be happening right now.

The first point we need to keep in mind is that no one, including real epidemiologists and ‘armchair epidemiologists’, has a monopoly on the truth. We are dealing with a health crisis that is rooted in uncertainty. In these circumstances, it is inevitable that rumours, conspiracy theories and misinformation will circulate, alongside all the genuine attempts by both experts and non-experts to make sense of the predicament we find ourselves in.

Yes, we may all feel angry about certain comments made on social media. There are some pretty moronic things being said and circulated. But the idea that this should be stopped or managed by overseers, whether it is Twitter moderators or WhatsApp administrators, is plain wrong. If anything, we should welcome the spread of discussion. It shows that ordinary people, just like the experts, are trying to make sense of the madness of our times.

The demand for obedience, the intolerance towards ordinary people’s efforts to get a handle on reality, is an indulgence that might flatter the egos of self-appointed experts. But it does a disservice to society, and to experts too, in fact.

In times like these, scepticism, debate and questioning are fundamental to resolving the crisis we face. These things are a central part of how we make sense of the world and build resilience to handle the threat. Gaining clarity, even in the midst of confusion, is not about ‘seeing the light’ or finding ‘the truth’. It is about how we get to a common acceptance of what the truth might be.

What the critics of ‘armchair epidemiology’ fail to grasp is that we do not have to understand the technical content of scientific expertise to question it. As citizens we need to judge the knowledge we are being asked to accept through discussion and persuasion. By stirring up public controversy over the advice or policies that are being presented to us, we the citizens can constructively shape politics.

One thing we should do is challenge inconsistencies. For example, two weeks ago we were told that people assembling in large gatherings in open sports stadiums was not a major threat. Today, we are being told that walking in a park with someone without observing the two-metre distance rule is an act of irresponsibility. If we accept, and perhaps we should, that new data has come to light that shows such measures are now needed, then this would make sense. But no such explanation has been made.

The point here is that by demanding an explanation, we are not passing judgement on the merits or demerits of the argument. Rather, by insisting on our freedom of discussion, we are forcing the experts to clash, to discuss the inconsistencies among themselves, and to question themselves and their evidence. This might change their minds; it might not. But at least it will force them to explain their positions better. More clarity, more authority and thus more trust will result from our so-called ‘armchair epidemiology’.

True experts will welcome our ‘intrusion’ into their space. Unlike the moral guardians who believe their insights trump those of the plebs, those genuinely fighting to help solve the coronavirus crisis know that this is a battle that will take place on many fronts – the scientific, the political and the social. They know, too, that it will be wrong and counterproductive for them to isolate themselves from public debate. Their self-value rests upon how well they can respond to public pressure. As Erwin Schrödinger, the great Austrian physicist, put it: ‘If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.’

To optimise outcomes, we need to strengthen, not weaken, the division of labour between experts and non-experts. We also need to insist that it is a moral imperative, a duty that falls upon all of us, to question the experts. This ought to be the message of our times.

Dr Norman Lewis is a writer and managing director of Futures Diagnosis.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Christopher Tyson

28th March 2020 at 9:27 pm

You seem to know something of the philosophy of science, and these theories have in various ways dethroned the image of the dispassionate objective scientist. Bit my point was more prosaic. There seemed to be an annoyance in your response to O’Neill, I just wondered if on reflection you would respect his prerogative to question a scientific theory. Of course there is more to it than that. Most of us would regard the noble scientist in the quest for knowledge or truth as a myth. Why do scientist choose particular subjects for study? Availability of funds? Personal interest? With regard to the question of race and IQ, I genuinely stay well clear of this question, indeed I did not respond to your initial comment. I find that people who subscribe to these theories are fiercely defensive of them, (scientists are often defensive of their pet theories), you seem to be implying that you have no axe to grind here and I see that you annoyance with O’Neill may simply have been with regard his use of quotation marks for ‘science’ , perhaps not giving due respect to the science of racial theory. Some might say that racial theory is pseudo science, my own view is that the idea of pseudo science implies that there is something call pure science or real science. I don’t share this simplistic notion of science, so the idea of pseudo science, or science in inverted comments doesn’t mean much either.
As a political propagandist, O’Neill’s concern would be with people who assert the racial superiority of white people over black people and seek some spurious justification for this.

Christopher Tyson

28th March 2020 at 9:29 pm

This reply was meant for Dodgy Geezer, it’s not a subject I would have initiated.

Norman Baker

27th March 2020 at 1:32 pm

It is now clear to me that Gina Miller contracted virologists in Wuhan to develop and release to the world a virus that Boris Johnson would eventually catch and die from so that brexit can be cancelled.

Just thought the conversation needed a bit more sense.

KATHLEEN CARR

27th March 2020 at 3:57 pm

Though how would that explain Matt Hancock? I think they should put Dillyn in charge-so far he hasn’t put a paw wrong.

steve moxon

27th March 2020 at 8:38 am

Well here’s my message exchange with Derbyshire Police re harassing dog walkers in the remotest parts of the Peak District national park:
8:02 AM
Supt Steve Pont is nuts. Absolutely nuts. Walking the dog on your own in the middle of nowhere is in no sense not observing social distancing. Just how low in basic intelligence do you have to be to be a senior police officer these days? Steve Moxon S36 2QL
REPLY:
Thanks for contacting us, we are busy at the moment but we Will get back to you – May the Farce be with you.
MY REJOINDER:
It’s certainly with Derbyshire Police! … Or is this Police Farce in on the joke? It is almost April 1, after all.

KATHLEEN CARR

27th March 2020 at 5:14 pm

A policeman has fined a shop owner for drawing a chalk exclusion line outside her shop. He said he had to as it was graffitti. Its lucky he was not around when I was a child, playing Hopscotch, or I’d have probably got 10 years!

Tom Forrester-Paton

27th March 2020 at 1:32 am

A distinction needs to be made here. When we listen to an epidemiologist talking about coronavirus, we are looking at someone dealing in hypotheses which are falsifiable in the short to medium term. Both professionally and personally he/she has a strong investment in the outcome. We know it, and he/she knows we know it. These are pretty good conditions for trust in their expertise to prevail. When they stress the uncertainties, we trust them more, not less.

Compare this to the demented cocktail of unfalsifiable hypotheses that is the stock in trade of the climate alarmist, and the contrast is stark.

Stephen Kenny

27th March 2020 at 12:41 am

Generally speaking, if you want to find a good expert, as opposed to a bad expert, the only reliable method is to ask someone who’s employed them – to get references. Professional bodies are a complete waste of space.

This goes for car mechanics and oncologists, plumbers and dentists, cat burglars and lawyers.

Get the wrong one and the chances that your plumbing will collapse the day after they leave, or that you die years too early, are significantly higher.

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