Who qualifies as a ‘real expert’ when it comes to coronavirus?

One epidemiologist called a colleague a “charlatan” over his coronavirus tweets. Should academics “stay in their lane”  when commenting on the pandemic?

March 31, 2020
Source: Getty
Some academics believe coronavirus commentary should only be done by field experts

Once-obscure academic experts have been thrust into the limelight by the coronavirus pandemic, appearing alongside world leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson at critical press conferences, amassing armies of Twitter followers and popping up as talking heads on TV.

But such sudden arrivals on the international stage can beg a number of questions: which academics count as experts on the pandemic? Should they “stay in their lane” of expertise, or is it OK to swerve out of it to warn society about coronavirus?

Such inter-academic tension broke into the open on 20 March when Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University who has emerged as one of the most trusted voices on the outbreak, called fellow Harvard epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding a “charlatan exploiting a tenuous connection for self-promotion”.

Dr Feigl-Ding, whose Twitter following has rocketed from about 2,000 in mid-January to approaching 140,000 now (a slightly greater reach, at the time of writing, than Professor Lipsitch), delivers a daily stream of coronavirus tweets – largely stark warnings about the pandemic’s severity.

But his expertise is in nutrition, not infectious disease, meaning that he makes “no original contributions to analysis of this epidemic & is laser-focused on self-promotion”, pointed out Professor Lipsitch on Twitter.

Though for Dr Feigl-Ding, who also focuses on public health policy, you do not need to be a specialist to raise the alarm. “Anyone who has a good sense of data, an engineer, a statistician, a business analyst, could easily have identified this epidemic early on as very troubling,” he told Times Higher Education.

He pointed to Michael Burry, the hedge fund manager and physician profiled in the film The Big Short, who saw the 2008 financial crash coming owing to an obsessive interrogation of the underlying numbers.

After the World Health Organisation declined to declare Covid-19 a public health emergency on 23 January, Dr Feigl-Ding started tweeting his alarm − “blowing the whistle”, as he put it.

Before Covid-19 took hold globally, he took flak for his tone (the author of one critical article has since acknowledged that more alarm back in January would have been a good thing, Dr Feigl-Ding pointed out). “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD,” he tweeted at the end of January, warning that the new coronavirus had a “thermonuclear pandemic level” of infectiousness (the paper he referenced was not peer-reviewed, it later revised its infection estimate down, and Dr Feigl-Ding has since deleted the tweet).

But with the outbreak now a full-blown pandemic, he feels vindicated, with journalists now asking why he wasn't listened to. “I regret a few typos,” he said. “I don’t regret the core message.” When, in January, relatives in Shanghai were warning of a killer disease in Wuhan, his Twitter reach was so limited, he said, that “whispering” or using the sometimes “pedantic” or “couched” language of academics was not an option. “You have to wake them [the public] up somehow,” he added.

Although the whistle is now well and truly blown on Covid-19, Dr Feigl-Ding will continue tweeting, as many followers are hard-core Trump supporters who distrust mainstream media warnings. “Now, more than ever, they trust me, because they saw I called it right,” he said.

This might come as a surprise, given that in 2018 he ran – unsuccessfully − for office as a Democrat. Should scientists disclose their political affiliations when warning about coronavirus? Dr Feigl-Ding does not on his Twitter bio; he told THE he thought it only necessary for incumbents or those currently running.

Another politically inclined scientist who has shot to prominence during the pandemic is Dena Grayson, a self-described expert on Ebola, coronavirus and pandemics, who has amassed more than a quarter of a million Twitter followers and made multiple TV appearances, some denouncing the Trump administration. The president “can’t spin death” she told Sky News in March.

She previously ran as a Democrat for congressional office in Florida, but since 15 March, has removed this disclosure from her Twitter biography, now only describing her scientific credentials. Dr Grayson does have a biotechnology background and has published on virus protection as a private consultant, but a THE request for evidence of her coronavirus expertise was turned down.

Twitter has been verifying – adding a blue tick – accounts “providing credible updates” on coronavirus and is “working with global public health authorities to identify experts”. But a Twitter spokesman declined to give THE further details.

Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Centre, a UK body distributing expert comment to journalists, said the organisation had told its network of academics, inundated by coronavirus media enquiries, to “stay in your lane”.

The centre has a database of about 2,500 academic experts – the majority of whom are professors − picked on the basis of publication record and peer recommendations, and then tagged by which field they are qualified to speak on, she explained.

The centre sends out a daily list of coronavirus topics but will weed out answers from academics who have veered out of their field: a disease modeller commenting on whether supermarkets should open at special hours for health workers, for example.

Ms Fox believes this approach, since the centre’s inception in 2002, has “taken a lot of general celebrity scientists off the air” in the UK and replaced them with genuine specialists.

But for Dr Feigl-Ding, what he called the “credentialism” of the “stay in your lane” approach is “really dangerous” − as it would have meant many early warning signs of the pandemic would have been missed.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Coronavirus: who are the ‘real experts’?

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Reader's comments (4)

Commentators who are not experts often use sensationalist language to gain followers. Sadly herd mentality follows; confusion reigns over who is or is not an expert and then the real experts become distrusted. I read the scientific evidence, such as there is, and cannot understand the need for panic or indeed all these drastic measures but I accept that there is much we still do not know. The greater fear is not destruction caused by this virus, but the detrimental consequences on mental health and the global and national economies. These may be the crises to come.
Mode 1 science has its place and should be respected for its silo focus. Shutting down other voices is extremely dangerous, as is shutting down inputs from Mode 2 science, which is multidisciplinary and useful for solving practical and real world problems. Many scientific problems are at the intersection of modes. All voices should be heard. The ethical frameworks for open innovation apply here- post normal science is a useful guide- as experts often conflict in their views (look to climate science). The post normal science perspective might suggest that only when there is full transparency, with open and full disclosure of methodologies and conversations, can we do justice to those affected by the scientific and political decisions associated with this outbreak. There is a lot of literature on the wisdom of the crowd, and its implications for situations like this. Yes, science is inherently contested, but it should essentially be evidence based, while acknowledging the limitations of empiricism. Medical pseudoscience can be addressed by enabling reasoned debates. Shutting down voices also shuts down new ideas, particularly in a discovery system in which conservative gatekeepers already hold sway.
Clearly, mankind has become steeped and submerged in the habit of using language to distinguish between each other. The use of the word expert is an example so there are experts and non experts, powerful and powerless, achievers and nonachievers, those who are good at business and the rest who are not good at business, the rich and poor, developed countries and undeveloped or underdeveloped countries. In every instance, the truth depends on who is making the distinction and whether or not that person can get the majority of people agree. Usually the people who agree are unconsciously pulled in that direction by a wave driven by what many countries offer as Education a system that claims to be teaching critical thinking but does not and cannot because 90% of the talkers do not know what teaching really is. With respect to corona, those who the world traditionally considering be experts in health based on their specific qualifications and experiences in that field have all found themselves turn my and stumbling behind something, an invisible microscopic and shifty destroyer that they know nothing about so the most they can do is offer their hypotheses about the incubation period of this virus, the length of the quarantine period, how it's damaging effects can be mitigated. Where is their scientific predictor modelling process. Why was it impossible for them to use their expertise to be proactive and flatten the curve two weeks ago? Any and everybody is free to comment and use their commonsense or any other resource to help themselves in the current circumstances given the above facts. The use of language is not the domain of a few and nobody has any privelege, power or authority to try to control the use of such words as experts etc. The ultimate flattening of the curve might ultimately happen in the most unlikely countries orchestrated by the most unlikely people. We are all in the same boat so let us row together use various methodologies and successfully reach students at all levels both within and outside of the school environment.without creating or trying to create unrealistic differences. At least despite the facilities of our education system we should be educated enough to realize that global unity is global strength.
Wow, that was a long reply! Just to say that while too many cooks can certainly spoil the broth, it’s unwise to just depend on soup specialists if you want to run a restaurant! Focusing on the “best medical advice” only ignores the fact that this stopped being just a medical problem sometime in November: now it is a financial problem, a logistical problem, a mental health problem, a crowd control problem, a political problem, a constitutional problem, a legal problem, .... etc. Room for lots of “experts” of all kinds there. The real question is what the MOTIVATIONS of those experts and commentators is.

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