Disease Experts Are Better Than the Covid-19 Contrarians
Coronavirus vaccine research work inside the Pasteur Institute laboratories in Lille, France, on March 9, 2020. (Photographer: Adrienne Surprenant/Bloomberg)

Disease Experts Are Better Than the Covid-19 Contrarians


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One of the most vexing questions in life is: Should you trust the experts? The fundamental conundrum is that sometimes the experts make big mistakes -- think of medieval doctors who killed their patients by bleeding them. But without expertise in a field -- economics, epidemiology, meteorology or whatever -- it’s very hard to tell when the official wisdom is wrong. In a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, where we have to make decisions quickly under incomplete information, this poses a troubling dilemma.

In general, we should restrain our natural impulse to second-guess experts and rely on common sense. Modern scientists, civil servants and industry insiders really do have deep reservoirs of knowledge and perspective. But there are ways that lay people can improve how they use expert advice. The Great Recession, when Americans had to decide how much to trust economists and central bankers, offers many lessons that can be applied to today's crisis.

The first lesson is: Just because experts haven’t weighed in yet doesn’t mean there’s no cause for alarm. In the lead-up to 2008, economists generally ignored the financial sector. A few economists did model the idea that banks could make bad decisions and simultaneously fail on a mass scale, upending the entire economy. But because it hadn’t happened yet, most economists weren’t spending all day shouting about the possibility. Those who interpreted the lack of expert alarm as a statement that a financially driven recession was impossible were making a grave error.

Similarly, as the coronavirus crisis built rapidly to a head in early March, some leaders refrained from taking action because they believed that epidemiologists weren’t worried. In fact, many epidemiologists were extremely worried, but because the epidemic hadn’t exploded yet, their voices weren’t being heeded.

The second lesson is that expert pronouncements are always subject to change -- even when they come from the wisest and most reasonable voices. Before the 2008 crisis hit, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke declared that a housing bubble was unlikely. But this doesn’t mean Bernanke was a fool. To the contrary, he was one of the few macroeconomists whose research warned that a financial crisis could devastate the economy, and his actions to prevent an economic collapse were extremely quick and decisive. Even the best experts get things wrong, to say nothing of the less-than-best experts.

The coronavirus story has similar examples. The World Health Organization initially declared that there was no evidence of human transmission of the new virus in China; obviously, that pronouncement should have been regarded as highly tentative.

An even more egregious example was the use of masks. At first, the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control both discouraged the public from using masks to reduce the spread of coronavirus. But a growing chorus of voices, including a few experts and a lot of lay people, began to question this received wisdom and to point to evidence that masks were effective. Eventually, there was a dramatic reversal -- the CDC now recommends universal mask-wearing, and some localities are even insisting on masks as a requirement for people to leave their homes.

Why did the experts get it so wrong on masks at first? They may have simply made a mistake. They might have been following hidebound tradition. Or they could have been overly concerned that hoarding of medical-grade N95 masks by normal citizens would deprive medical workers of needed protection.

The third lesson from the 2008 crisis is that experts often disagree. Macroeconomists who specialize in fiscal policy generally believed that stimulus would be effective after the housing crash, and most economists agree that the 2009 bill worked. But a few, including some prominent figures, loudly proclaimed that stimulus was ineffective or even harmful. A rational observer, reading the back-and-forth arguments on blogs and in the pages of major newspapers, would have seen that the pro-stimulus voices had a much stronger case. But there was ample opportunity for those who were politically opposed to stimulus to find a minority voice to justify their established beliefs.

In the coronavirus crisis, a few prominent voices have downplayed the severity of the epidemic. One of these is Stanford medical researcher John Ioannidis. Ioannidis, along with several co-authors, now has a paper arguing that the virus is much less deadly than most virologists and epidemiologists have heretofore believed. But this study, and a couple of others like it, are rife with caveats and potential problems, and the bulk of evidence and expert opinion continue to suggest that coronavirus is extremely dangerous. A wise lay person shouldn't ignore these dissenting voices, but should pay attention to the details of the controversy and try to figure out which side is right. When doing this, it’s especially important to try to set aside’s one’s personal politics. It’s also important to recognize when there’s a broad preponderance of opinion on just one side, as in the case of climate change.

Armchair enthusiasts pugnaciously denying the value of academics, civil servants and industry leaders are doing no one any favors. But experts are often wrong, as 2008 showed, and as 2020 is showing once again. By constantly seeking out expert advice, viewing it with a critical eye, understanding that it may be overtaken by events and paying attention to disagreements, lay people can be intelligent and judicious consumers of insiders’ wisdom.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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