Not long ago, I read a book about the death of expertise. As I think about that concept in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the book feels like it was written for a different world.
Today, everyone is desperate for reliable information. We want to know how the virus spreads, what new treatments might be effective against it, how long until we have a vaccine, and how to get the economy going again. And we want answers from people who really know what they’re talking about.
Yet the anti-expertise sentiment that was brewing before Covid-19 struck is still with us. Having vast amounts of information available at our fingertips is empowering. But there’s a flip side: data and information can be manipulated to mislead or flat out deceive. Disregarding expertise is a mainstay of arguments on the fringe (that vaccinating kids is unsafe) and in the mainstream (that climate change doesn’t exist). Why should we listen to experts telling us things we don’t want to hear if we can find facts that refute them, no matter how sketchy they might be?
Take, for example, the success we’ve had flattening the curve. It provides evidence that the social distancing measures experts have recommended and urged us, and our leaders, to adopt are working. But for some, this outcome “proves” that experts were wrong about how bad Covid-19 was going to be and gives license to disregard warnings about the dangers of opening the economy too quickly. Under pressure to boost economic activity, governors and mayors are weighing opening businesses before experts say it’s safe.
It’s as if the knowledge that experts bring to the table doesn’t count for much, that they offer just another opinion that’s equal to everyone else’s.
As the CEO of GLG, a global company headquartered in midtown Manhattan, I want the economy open again as much as anyone. But not before it’s safe. And I want experts to help make that call.
It’s important to be clear about what expertise is and what it isn’t — and how to make the most of it. My company is all about expertise. We have a network of hundreds of thousands of experts across sectors and industries, from blockchain to thoracic oncology to solar power. They are experts because they have had years of firsthand experience, are fluent in what they know, and welcome thoughtful questioning.
Sometimes experts make the hard calls themselves. More often, though, their job is to advise leaders so they can be more confident about the decisions they make. In responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, mayors, governors, lawmakers, and the president seek the counsel of experts, though to varying degrees.
Decision-making comes down to judgment. The more that judgment is informed by expert insight, the more effective and thoughtful the decision will be. Put another way, experts don’t always make the decision, but they almost always make the decision better.
We often expect experts to have the “right” answer. But there often isn’t one when it comes to data and insight, especially in a novel situation like this pandemic, where the science is only a few months old and the economic disruption is without precedent.
But even in a new and unfolding situation like this, experts bring irreplaceable assets to the table. Consider Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, two of the top scientists advising the White House. Together they have nearly 80 years of experience fighting some of the most dangerous viruses on Earth, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Zika. Over the years they’ve put on protective gear and treated patients, led teams of epidemiologists, built international coalitions, and explained viruses and outbreaks to millions of people. That has deepened their expertise: You don’t really know something until you have to explain it to someone else.
They — along with others at America’s top labs, universities, and scientific agencies — are the best in the world. Yes, they might have to revise or change their advice, and perhaps do it again a few times before this is over. Some of what they say might frighten or anger us, which is only fitting for a pandemic that is upending lives in painful ways. They might sometimes disagree with each other, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s nearly always helpful to get different points of view.
Experts, of course, are human. There’s a risk that some might cut corners to bring the pandemic to an early end or to further their careers. Clinical trials conducted without the right controls — like the French trial on hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin — provide false hope and undermine confidence in science.
Still, there’s no substitute for what experts know and what their expertise can mean for our lives and safety. We can’t lose sight of that, no matter how badly we want the pandemic to go away and for life to get back to normal.
The existence of experts doesn’t mean everyone else is off the hook. Leaders, and the rest of us, need to listen to experts and then ask them tough questions. The experts in the GLG network often tell me how much they learn from conversations with clients who are curious, informed, and bring their own experiences to the table. Most of us can’t engage firsthand in conversations with Fauci or Birx, so we count on journalists — experts themselves at asking questions — to do that for us.
In crises, people need complex information delivered clearly, transparency about what’s known and unknown, and the best advice based on the most up-to-date information. We don’t need uninformed opinions or wishful thinking; they can cost lives. Guided by expertise, our leaders can act with the confidence that comes from clarity. And if we learn to listen more closely to experts, we’ll be in better shape to face future challenges when this pandemic is over.
Paul Todd is CEO of GLG, an expert knowledge marketplace.
Top disease official: Risk of coronavirus in USA is ‘minuscule’; skip mask and wash hands-Summary of Dr. Fauci in USAToday. He was the expert advising the administration. Now everyone is mad that the administration wasn’t acting like this was an existential crisis since January. Dr. Fauci giving praise to barely tested Remdesivir, yet ignores other countries touting the success of hydroxychloroquine. Maybe this author has never worked for the government like I have, but you can always find an “expert” to agree with you, the same way you can find an expert to be a witness in court. This whole virus nonsense is nothing but an election year political ploy made possible by the deep political divide and the fact that the virus isn’t deadly enough to unite us. The fallout of this war will be economic, and the people we supposedly saved will be long dead by the time we recover. However, as with all wars, the poor ones on the bottom will suffer the same regardless of their political leanings.
This all reminds me of a wonderful quote from Dr. Isaac Asimov, the Russian-born scientist and prolific author of works of science fiction. Here it is. “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Asimov was one of the greats!
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