The Small but Unsettling Voice of the Expert Skeptic
Experts and politicians worldwide have come to grips with the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even Donald Trump, once skeptical that COVID-19 would affect the US in a significant way, now admits that the virus will likely take many more thousands of lives.
Despite this agreement, some are still not convinced. Skeptics claim that deaths that are reported as being caused by COVID-19 are really deaths that would have happened anyway, thereby artificially inflating the death toll. They claim that the CDC is complicit, telling doctors to document a death as “COVID-related” even when they aren’t sure. They highlight failures of world leaders like the Director-General of the World Health Organization and political corruption in China. They claim that talk of hospitals being “war zones” is media hype, and they share videos of “peaceful” local hospitals from places that aren’t hot spots, like Louisville or Tallahassee. They point to elaborate conspiracies about the nefarious origins of the novel coronavirus.
What’s the aim of this strikingly implausible, multi-national conspiracy, according to these “COVID-truthers”? Billions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies and votes for tyrannical politicians who want to look like benevolent saviors.
Expert skeptics like COVID-truthers are concerning because they are more likely to put themselves, their families, and their communities at risk by not physical distancing or wearing masks. They are more likely to violate stay-at-home orders and press politicians to re-open commerce before it is safe. And they pass this faulty reasoning on to their children.
While expert skepticism is not new, it is unsettling because expert skepticism often has a kernel of truth. Experts regularly disagree, especially in high-impact domains like medicine. Some experts give advice outside their fields (what Nathan Ballantyne calls “epistemic trespassing”). Some experts have conflicts of interest that lead to research fraud. And some people—seemingly miraculously—defy expert prediction, for example, by surviving a life-threatening illness.
If all this is right, shouldn’t everyone be skeptical of experts?
In reality, most non-experts do okay deciding who is trustworthy and when. This is because we understand—at least in broad strokes—how expertise works. Experts disagree over some issues, but, in time, their judgments tend to converge. Some people do defy expert expectations, but these usually fall within the scope of uncertainty. For example, about 1 in 100,000 cancers go into spontaneous remission. Further, we can often tell who is in a good position to help us. In the case of lawyers, contractors, and accountants, we can find out their credentials, how long they’ve been practicing, and their specialties. We can even learn about their work from online reviews or friends who have used them.
Of course, in these cases, the stakes are usually low. If it turns out that we trusted the wrong person, we might be able to sue for damages or accept the consequences and try harder next time. But as our need for experts gets more complicated, figuring out who is trustworthy is harder. For instance, questions about COVID-19 are:
- New (Experts struggle to get good information.)
- Time-sensitive (We need answers more quickly than we have time to evaluate experts.)
- Value-charged (Our interests in the information biases who we trust.)
- Politicized (Information is emotionally charged or distorted, and there are more epistemic trespassers.)
Where does this leave those of us who aren’t infectious disease experts? Should we shrug our shoulders with the COVID-truthers and start looking for ulterior motives?
Not obviously. Here are four strategies to help distill reality from fantasy.
- Keep in mind what experts should (and should not) be able to do.
Experts spend years studying a topic, but they cannot see the future. They should be able explain a problem and suggest ways of solving it. But models that predict the future are educated guesses. In the case of infectious diseases, those guesses depend on assumptions about how people act. If people act differently, the guesses will be inaccurate. But that’s how models work.
- Look for consensus, but be realistic.
When experts agree on something, that’s usually a sign they’re all thinking about the evidence the same way. But when they face a new problem, their evidence will change continually, and experts will have little time to make sense of it. In the case of COVID-19, there’s wide consensus about the virus that causes it and how it spreads. There is little consensus on why it hurts some people more than others and whether a vaccine is the right solution. But just because there isn’t consensus doesn’t mean there are ulterior motives.
- Look for “meta-expert consensus.”
When experts agree, it is sometimes because they need to look like they agree, whether due to worries about public opinion or because they want to convince politicians to act. These are not good reasons to trust experts. But on any complex issue, there’s more than one kind of expert. And not all experts have conflicts of interest. In the case of COVID-19, independent epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors, and public health experts agree that SARS-CoV-2 is a new, dangerous, contagious threat and that social distancing the main weapon against that threat. That kind of “meta-expert consensus” is a good check on expertise and good news for novices when deciding what to believe.
- Don’t double-down.
When experts get new evidence, they update their beliefs, even if they were wrong. They don’t force that evidence to fit old beliefs. When prediction models for COVID-related deaths did not bear out, experts updated their predictions. They recognized that predictions can be confounded by many variables, and they used the new evidence to update their models. This is good advice for novices, too.
These strategies are not fool proof. The world is messy, experts are fallible, and we won’t always trust the right people. But while expert skepticism is grounded in real limitations of expertise, we don’t have to join the ranks the COVID-truthers. With hard work and a little caution, we can make responsible choices about who we trust.