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Following the science: trust, experts, and COVID-19

20 April 2020

Students of recent social epistemology could be forgiven for thinking that the world’s social and political problems begin and end with the threat of “fake news”. The thought is that something new and dangerous has emerged at the end of the end of history: a “post-truth” new world order in which populist demagogues deny the credibility of traditional sources of political information, while new digital media accelerate the dissemination of misinformation. The very legitimacy of democracy is at stake as we lose hope for a well-informed citizenry, and with it a democratic system that can help us arrive at the right political decisions.

There is a genuinely worrying context in which these anxieties have developed. Decades of climate-change denial have left us ill-equipped to even cope with, let alone prevent, imminent catastrophe. We now face a dangerous scenario in which some of most world’s most powerful political authorities continue to discredit the very fact of anthropogenic climate-change, and will certainly resist any measures to dampen its impact.

But it’s too easy for these anxieties to turn into a paranoia that impels us to see all political problems as epistemic problems. Epistemologists, it seems, are as vulnerable as anyone else to methodological bias. As Maslow had it, when you wield a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Even the coronavirus pandemic has provoked this tendency to see epistemological issues everywhere. Many writing about COVID-19 have focused on a supposed “infodemic”, some going to so far as to suggest that the spread of misinformation about coronavirus could be as dangerous as the virus itself. Rather than focusing on the harmful skepticism from those with significant political power, discussion of the infodemic tends to locate the problem among citizens. Epistemic analysis of the COVID crisis tells us that the real threat during the pandemic is a misinformed public, whose credulity towards conspiracy theories and incredulity towards experts risks undermining our global public health response.

Trust in experts is indeed important in the current crisis. Policies that involves restrictions of liberties that are unprecedented for many of us (though not all of us) cannot be effective purely through police-enforcement. Without at least some level of compliance from the public, quarantines and lockdowns would not work. This compliance in turn requires some minimal level of public confidence in the policies, and in the science that leads the policies.

But there is a significant difference between believing what scientists tell us is the case – on the basis of epistemic trust in experts – and agreeing to do what scientists tell us to do – on the basis of trust in technocratic policy. The pandemic reveals an acute form of this difference.

Many governments around the world have made a point of projecting an image of expert-led policy. In the UK, we have been told repeatedly that the government is “led by science”; in Sweden, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell arguably has a more prominent public profile in response to the pandemic than the Prime Minister. Experts in the context of COVID-19 aren’t just providing knowledge about the virus and its spread. They are playing an active role in policy decisions, in some cases all but making those decisions themselves.

When experts become technocrats, the norms that govern what makes them trustworthy are very different. Consider first a philosophical analysis of what would usually make it reasonable to trust the results of science. In a series of influential papers John Hardwig argued that it can be rational to believe something solely on the basis that we know that relevant experts also believe it, and that we think they have good reason to. Knowledge on the basis of expert testimony might be hard won, and fragile – who do we consider an expert? How do we determine whether an expert has good reasons? What if experts disagree? – but the principle is good enough to guarantee knowledge for the lay person provided we can find answers to these questions.

But this principle does not translate to expert practical advice. I am confident that my doctor is honest, and knows what they’re talking about. If they tell me that 20% of people whose heart has stopped outside of hospital are successfully resuscitated by CPR, I have good reason to believe this. But if my doctor were to (unethically) recommend that I sign a DNACPR, it is not enough for me to know that they are well-informed and sincere. Perhaps they have an undisclosed vested interest in my signing a DNACPR. Perhaps they simply have a different view to me about the relative values of preserving life and a dignified death.

For me to have good reason not just to believe what my doctor tells me is true, but to do what they tell me is best, I must also have sufficient confidence that the doctor’s values are compatible with mine. What they want and what I want must be similar enough for me to think that their expert advice is worth following.

When experts aren’t just providing guidance but are leading government decisions, values become even more important for determining whether they are trustworthy. The relevant facts underdetermine policy, which must also be led by what we value most, and what we want to achieve with our public health response.

Some, for instance, have framed this crisis as a trade-off between lives lost to COVID-19 and quality of life lost to the economic fallout of lockdown. Decision-maker values play a role here, most obviously in determining priorities. What do we value more: saving lives, or saving livelihoods?

But the politics of these decisions runs deeper than this. Our political position determines not only where we land on the trade-off but also how we calculate the outcomes that are compared. Consider how we establish the long-term health effects of a pandemic-generated recession. Research on the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis shows that rising unemployment rates after the crash did indeed increase mortality rates worldwide. But it also shows that whether a country has universal healthcare, and its level of public expenditure on healthcare, was a significant factor in the increase in mortality.

The scale and equity of the effects of economic crises are not inevitable consequences of recession; they are partly determined by political decisions about, among other things, who deserves access to healthcare, and how it is funded. Even technocratic reasoning in this context will be framed by what experts consider a politically acceptable response to the crisis.

How, then, can we cultivate public trust in experts? If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic teaches us that whatever we do to secure public confidence in science, our strategy must be sensitive to the difference between trust in scientific fact and trust in technocracy. It is one thing to worry when we collectively refuse to accept the facts; it is quite another to ask that we do as we are told.

“Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash”