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Yes, we should follow the scientists, but sometimes we should listen to the armchair experts too

Non-scientists can perform the useful task of testing and interrogating the case made by the scientists.

By Ian Leslie

In the second week of March, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The world was reading shocking reports of the virus’s destructive advance through northern Italy. In Britain, where cases still numbered in hundreds, the government raised its official threat level to “high” but did not announce major new policy measures. Anyone with a fever was to self-isolate. Schools were told to cancel trips abroad. Older people were advised to avoid cruises. “The best thing we can all do is wash our hands,” said Boris Johnson.

That same week, a blog post appeared on the self-publishing platform Medium. Its headline was “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now”. The post was 6,000 words long, full of data-based charts. It detailed the progress of the virus in China and elsewhere and presented a lucid explanation of what it means for a disease to spread at an exponential rate – the way new cases seem to grow gradually for a while before exploding. The piece argued that wherever you were in the world and whatever the local situation looked like now, within a week or two your country would be hit, and hit hard.

Its conclusion was urgent: the time to lock down is right away. There is no point worrying about overreaction or trying to pick the right moment. Any delay will lead to thousands more deaths than necessary: “every day counts”. The article itself went viral: within a week of publication it had received 40 million views. At the time, the UK government was sending a very different message. The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and his fellow advisers said it was too early to lock down and that the virus would probably not peak in Britain until June.

Those concerned by the government’s tentative response were quick to share the article. When I read it, I was sceptical. At the time, there were many loud voices expressing firm views about the virus and how to handle it, and only a few of them possessed relevant scientific credentials. Social media tends to level out all claims to authority. You don’t need to be qualified to present your view, you just need to present it as compellingly as possible. The incentive is to make extreme, eye-popping claims that people want to pass along.

The article certainly had a sheen of plausibility; it was well-written and plentifully evidenced. But to me it seemed too strident to be credible, especially because it wasn’t by a scientist. Its author, Tomas Pueyo, was a software engineer in California with no visible scientific qualifications. His previous blog posts included “How to deliver your funny speech” and “What the rise of Skywalker can teach about storytelling”. I suspected he was just that – a storyteller.

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Were people really suggesting that we should take the word of an armchair epidemiologist over a real one – a tech blogger over Chris Whitty, one of the most eminent infectious disease specialists in the world? I had a similar reaction when, that same week, Rory Stewart, the former MP, also raised the alarm. Stewart called for a draconian lockdown immediately in order to prevent a huge and unnecessary loss of life. Yes, Stewart had witnessed the Ebola epidemic up close while international development secretary, but still, it seemed to me that he didn’t have the expertise to be so confident in his opinions. This was a time to stay calm and listen to the experts.

Pueyo was invited to make his case on Channel 4 News. He was pitted against John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of Sage, the government’s scientific advisory group. The two men agreed on some issues, but Edmunds did not appear to take Pueyo very seriously and Pueyo believed Edmunds had his head in the sand. When Edmunds talked about achieving “herd immunity” Pueyo placed his hands over his eyes in horror. The difference in emotional tenor was striking: Edmunds cool and collected, Pueyo jumpy and excitable. As the sociologist Warren Pearce put it, in a recent reflection on the interview, “viewers found themselves a long way from the meeting rooms of Whitehall, and instead in a strange new world where the rough and tumble of internet epistemology emerged on to the mainstream news”.

I need hardly tell you that, with hindsight, I was wrong to dismiss Pueyo. While not all of his predictions came true, his fundamental claim – that a short delay in locking down would cost many lives – seems to have been correct (though it is too early to say with certainty).

In recent weeks, some of the government’s scientific advisers, including Edmunds, have said in public that Britain locked down too late and that this meant more lives were lost than necessary. Rory Stewart was also right. If the government had taken his advice when he gave it, the UK would look as though it had handled the epidemic better than most countries, instead of worse.

What should we conclude from this? That we should ignore the advice of experts and listen to whichever blogger or politician we find most convincing? Surely not. For all that expert scientific advice can be flawed, we have no option but to give it priority. But we should also recognise that there is a legitimate role for armchair experts. Non-scientists such as Pueyo, when they make their case with evidence and analysis, can perform the useful task of testing and interrogating the case made by the scientists.

They can also remind us that public health isn’t an academic debate. Armchair experts are not constrained by collegiality or professional decorum, which means they can speak out with the passion and urgency demanded by an imminent crisis. While the government’s experts were providing an assessment of the extent of the conflagration, Pueyo and Stewart were waving their arms and shouting “Fire”. 

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine