The Expertise Edition

On experts, armchair experts, and critical thinking

Noah here. The last year has been filled with questions around where to turn for advice as we grapple to find our way in this pandemic. While there’s a near-constant refrain to “listen to the scientists,” some of the essential voices I’ve read over the last twelve months have been sociologists, public health experts, economists, science journalists, and just good writers/communicators. In the end, my continued COVID takeaway is that public health is a complex multi-disciplinary problem, and anyone blindly following a single group is doing it wrong. For problems this large, it is important to tap into a variety of sources, ask the right critical questions, and rinse repeat. One area or discipline will not hold all of the answers and it is foolish to think it could. 

Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist and blogger, put this well in a post examining his own approach to taking in COVID warnings. While some were urging people to shift attention away from “armchair epidemiologists” early in the pandemic, Aaronson concluded the opposite:

A viral article implores us to “flatten the curve of armchair epidemiology”—that is, to listen only to authoritative sources like the CDC, not random people spouting on social media. This was notable to me for being the diametric opposite of the actual lesson of the past two months. It would be like taking the lesson from the 2008 financial crisis that from now on, you would only trust serious rating agencies, like Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s.

Why is this interesting?

The viral (and rather snarky) article Aaronson refers to calls out these “armchair epidemiologists” as suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect: whereby someone with a small amount of knowledge overestimates their ability. The problem? Like a lot of social science research, the Dunning-Kruger effect has failed to replicate—or rather it was found it could be replicated using random data. In other words, it’s not “that most people that are unskilled are unaware of it” but rather “that both experts and novices underestimate and overestimate their skills with the same frequency.” We’re all pretty bad at calibrating.

So what is the right takeaway from all this? I think it’s probably somewhere in-between: we should listen to the experts, but we should be careful to understand where their expertise lies. This was well-articulated by Matt Yglesias in a recent episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast:

A lot of what we get is adjacent expertise. So somebody who studies viruses, and maybe knows a lot about the protein structure of viruses, will opine about masks, right? And you’ve got to ask yourself, "Do they have subject matter expertise in this mask thing? Whose expertise do we need here?" 

Because one thing that I think clearly came out of the whole masks controversy is that public health experts underrated how easy it would be to get cloth masks in everybody's hands. It didn't occur to them as a solution to the PPE shortages that we could just get everybody a cloth mask. 

And that's because they're not experts in textile manufacturing. And it's no shame on them for not being experts in textile manufacturing. But they were thinking about, “Will masks give people a false sense of security?” Which is a psychology question. They were thinking about “Can we substitute away from surgical masks?” Which is a textile supply chain question. They were thinking about “Well, what are the antiviral properties of cloth masks?” Which again is a textile question. That's not a public health -- it's obviously relevant to public health, but it's a material science question. 

They didn't have expertise in those areas, and were in fact just on a par with me, or anybody else, right? But they had the, sometimes, arrogance that comes with believing you're being asked about your area of expertise. 

Unfortunately, none of this leaves us with an easy answer. We didn’t just need epidemiologists and textile experts, we also needed environment engineers who understand ventilation, and expert communicators, and local civic leaders, and a long line of other experts to find our way through. 

My biggest takeaway is that we need to continue to read critically, cultivate sources of expertise, and do our best to sort through what’s actually going on. It’s also an excellent case for investment in media literacy in schools to help children learn these skills early, and keep asking the right questions . (NRB)

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From Ars Technica: The world’s second-most popular desktop operating system isn’t macOS anymore (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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