People Are Right to Be Skeptical of Experts. That's Why We Need More of Them.
Plenty of unprecedented things have happened since COVID-19 first crept onto our shores. One of the most noteworthy: Within a matter of three weeks, we saw our entire nation become dependent on the advice of experts. Those working in epidemiology became our one source for answers and guidance. National and international health organizations like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) were pushed to spell out for us exactly how we should behave. Questioning their guidance was deemed unacceptable, with people socially shaming opposing views and legitimate questions out of sight. Looking at policy decisions moving forward, it is paramount that multiple parties have a voice in the policy conversation to avoid repeating the mistakes that were made during the early stages of this pandemic.
Early on, epidemiologists made grave predictions about what would happen unless the world took severe action to stem the spread of the virus. Their numbers were used to justify strict measures put in place globally, including travel bans, lockdowns, and the closure of “nonessential” businesses.
The consequences of implementing a one-size-fits-all policy universally have been dire. Numerous areas of the country are experiencing an uptick of calls regarding domestic abuse. Alcohol consumption is rising during the lockdown orders. Since the start of the pandemic, over 40 million Americans have filed jobless claims. While improving jobs report numbers in May and June offer signs of hope, the Federal Reserve expects the effects of COVID-19 to linger for some time after it abates.
Given the troubles raised by the virus coupled with government action and more issues besides, people became skeptical, and rightly so. People began to wonder if the cure hadn’t in fact, become worse than the disease itself. These thoughts were exacerbated as the predictions of experts increasingly turned out to be wrong.
There are well documented missteps on the federal level of the US government by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the CDC, and international organizations like the WHO. State agencies were no better, with some state health departments issuing orders banning gatherings when they had no legal standing to do so.
Exacerbating issues further, public health officials somehow managed to politicize protests happening around the nation. When thousands gathered to protest lockdown orders, advocating to reopen their states, protestors were called “idiots.” However, when George Floyd died, rightly triggering massive protests around the country, nearly 1,300 public health officials signed a public letter supporting those protests. In doing so, the very “experts” responsible for conveying critical health information to the public displayed a potentially hypocritical level of inconsistency, further hindering the public’s trust in their judgement.
One such expert who had a profound impact on the response to the COVID pandemic was epidemiologist Dr. Neil Ferguson. On March 16th, Dr. Ferguson and his team at Imperial College London had produced some fascinating estimations: Drawing attention from many outlets, he predicted as many as 500,000 deaths in the UK, and up to 2.2 million deaths in the United States, if governments took no action to stop the disease’s spread.
Dr. Ferguson has come under a lot of scrutiny, and justly so. Particularly, his model came under harsh criticism because the code used in creating the model was over 13 years old, being described as “totally unreliable” by other experts within the profession.
Dr. Roger Koppl, a professor from Syracuse University, believes that incentives played a role in the modeling. Imagine being in Dr. Ferguson’s shoes, what would you do? In underestimating the death toll, the expert comes under extreme criticism for being unable to accurately predict the impact of an epidemic or pandemic. On the other hand, in overestimating the death toll, the expert is protected by the argument: “Imagine how much worse it would have been if they did not follow those drastic measures?” An additional benefit of overestimating is that the expert can be credited for saving lives when the reality could very well be they were equally as wrong as experts who underestimated.
A key feature of being able to solve problems requires including more voices. By including experts from other fields, like, say, economics, a more nuanced approach could have been taken. Regulatory barriers could have been lifted to empower the production of personal protective equipment (PPE). The government could have utilized purchase guarantees to buy massive quantities of PPE or to buy excess supplies. With the necessary supplies readily available at an affordable price, businesses and consumers could adjust their behaviors. In addressing the PPE issue alone, perhaps draconian measures taken by states would not have been needed.
One type of expert alone should never have been given power to decide the fate of billions of people around the globe. Epidemiologists, while they know disease, could have benefited from coordinating with economists and regulators to come up with a more dynamic and balanced solution in answering some of the questions COVID-19 raised. Hopefully, when the next pandemic hits, governments will seek to include a wider array of experts in the pursuit of a balanced approach in their response efforts. As we’ve already seen, we can’t afford to do otherwise.
James Czerniawski is a contributor with Young Voices. His work can be seen in outlets such as the National Interest, the Salt Lake Tribune, The Washington Examiner, The Morning Consult, and others. Follow him on Twitter @JamesCz19.