COVID-19 and the limits of ‘expert knowledge’
Now more than ever before, we are told to “listen to the experts,” to defer to the science, and let evidence be our guide as we try to address and grapple with the pandemic.On one hand, listening to science is far better than listening to our politicians’ fearless, fact-less forecasts, or letting our feelings guide us. Thus, it was reassuring that, a day after the President threatened activists in his late night speech, the Department of Health’s Dr. Beverly Ho affirmed “siyensya” (science) as the nation’s guiding principle.
It was equally reassuring when Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles declared: “The DOH will still study the need to extend this quarantine or not. Where this discussion is concerned, science is in charge. We hope that is clear to everyone.”
But what exactly constitutes “science”? Who exactly are the “experts”?
These questions have been vigorously debated by sociologists, such as Reiner Grundmann (2016) who defines “experts” as those who “mediate between the production of knowledge and its application; they define and interpret situations; and they set priorities for action.” They are even more relevant now that scientific knowledge is being invoked to make life-and-death decisions.
The case of the now-ubiquitous “curve” is an illustrative example. While there is general consensus over the need to “flatten” it, the exact contours of the curve are subject to debate. For the Philippines, for instance, we have seen a number of projections—some of which have already been proven wrong—even as their own authors have warned about reading too much into them.
The traction of these tentative-at-best forecasts speaks of people’s desperation to know what the future holds—and the fractious nature of “expert knowledge.” We think of science as “objective,” but faced with an “infodemic” of competing scientific claims, we fall back on our feelings, choosing which “facts” are consistent with them.
Another example is the use of face masks by the general public, which, for the longest time, health authorities advised against. “Seriously — STOP BUYING MASKS!”, US Surgeon-General Jerome Adams emphatically tweeted on Feb. 29. As with other governments, however, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now endorsing the use of masks “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
This case reminds us that “expert knowledge” is iterative, and what experts ultimately say is not free from political and social pressures, as well as new knowledge.
The World Health Organization is no different. Many observers have pointed out its belated declaration of a “pandemic,” as well as its inexplicable exclusion of Taiwan. Far from being an infallible and objective authority, the WHO’s response reveals the limits of expertise and how it gets translated into policy.
All of the above should temper our expectations of what “experts” can do. First of all, they cannot predict the future and, thus, we cannot read too much into their projections and prognostications. Thankfully, true experts understand and disclose the limits of their expertise.
Second, they do not have immunity from critique. As Prof. Randy David wrote, “We should keep observing, asking questions, and thinking of alternatives.” We should not just demand evidence-based policies; we should also demand scholarly rigor from this evidence. Just because a journal article or an “expert” says something doesn’t mean we should uncritically accept it. On the other hand, precisely because science is imperfect, we need more of it, not less, allowing “expertise” to emerge from peer review and consensus.
Finally, we should be critical about the ways science is translated into news (and rumor)—and how it is mis(used) by political actors. All too often, media outlets are quick to exaggerate claims that scientists themselves refrain from making. Moreover, the quarantine may be based on science, but stifling dissent in its name certainly isn’t. Simply put, we cannot allow our politicians to use science as a shield for their misguided actions.
Needless to say, science, properly understood, remains our best—and only—framework for overcoming the pandemic. However, to mobilize its full potential and to avoid mistrust, we need to know the limits of those who claim to speak in its behalf.
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