Why we still need to listen to experts on COVID-19 rules
Recently on ABC Radio Melbourne I heard one of the more extraordinary claims in a while. It was in the context of changing the rules in Victoria for isolation for close COVID contacts and what the settings should be, which I should say is a legitimate area of debate.
Victoria’s opposition leader, Matthew Guy, called for an end of mandatory isolation for COVID-19 close contacts – while in isolation himself after a positive test result in his family.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy.Credit:Simon Schluter
There is nothing wrong in him questioning this, and one needs to acknowledge that COVID policy settings involve a complex set of considerations that have to take into account broader societal, economic, as well as health consequences.
However, in this interview, presenter Raf Epstein asked Guy whether he should ask an expert before recommending changing the isolation rules. Guy replied: “You know Raf, I think after three years about 23 million of us are experts on how we manage COVID now…”
This floored me. I found it surprising and disillusioning that someone in a leadership position who has lived through the pandemic would think this. Hasn’t the last two and a bit years taught us precisely the opposite?
One of the reasons we have been so successful in navigating the pandemic, and we have by and large, is that we have listened to the experts in Australia. This is by no means to say we couldn’t have done some things better, but comparisons with other places around the world put us up there as an exemplar. The main reason for this is that when other countries ignored experts, especially in the early days, we didn’t.
When other countries ignored experts, especially in the early days, we didn’t.Credit:Getty
Its interesting, however, that at a time in history when the authority of experts has been questioned like never before, and where there are so many self-proclaimed experts out there, it has perhaps never been more important to examine what it is that makes an expert.
It would seem reasonable to expect from experts a demonstration of a mastery of their area from dedicated years of relevant study and extensive experience. Although creating criteria for what makes an expert is not easy, the key issue here is that training and experience needs to be in the particular area in which someone is providing advice.
Sometimes this can be determined easily, but often, particularly for those falsely masquerading as experts, it is easy to be misdirected by impressive titles and lists of qualifications which usually don’t bear any relevance to the areas in which they are providing “guidance”.
Surprisingly, one of the significant sources of misinformation during the pandemic has been from experts swimming outside their lanes, so to speak. It’s not always clear what their motivations are, and one can only assume they are generally well-intentioned, but on occasion, confusion and even harm has been done by those venturing out of their area of expertise.
Others who have masqueraded as experts, particularly on the international stage, have clearly had conflicts of interests, often political or financial. These are often very transparent or easy to uncover.
The importance of recognising an expert is perhaps never more important than when an “expert” is contradicting the broader scientific community. In this situation, it would be wise to check their credentials. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was a phrase made famous by the brilliant science communicator Carl Sagan, and this has never been more apt than during the pandemic.
Similarly, any politician who cherry-picks one or more experts to undermine the established scientific wisdom needs to be challenged on why they feel that these views carry more weight than the others. The fact that science is not a democracy is often used as a weak defence of this cherry-picking. However true this is, if the majority of experts agree on something it is always an indicator that there is strong evidence supporting these views.
So Matthew Guy, everyone is not an expert. We certainly all have a right to an opinion, but I would strongly contest the notion that we can call everyone an expert on COVID-19.
Expertise does not come easy. We certainly have a way to go before we fully leave the pandemic behind us, and the best chance we have of getting to where we want to get to with the least suffering is to listen to experts.
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