Food for thought from Ross Douthat
By Alberto Mingardi
It is perhaps a conservative attitude we should draw from this catastrophe’s lessons on our imperfect nature and inevitable fallibility. Ross Douthat does exactly that in a splendid op-ed for the New York Times, which I cannot recommend highly enough. But Douthat does something more. He points out to the inevitable cognitive problems we are facing, in struggling with an unknown virus such as Covid19.
Expert knowledge is limited too, and it is contingent upon the particular situation the expert himself is facing. “…you should ignore experts and just take random posts and Twitter rants as gospel”, yet
under conditions of fog and uncertainty, armchair epidemiology will sometimes reach truths sooner than officialdom. If one Medium post foolishly lowballs the disease’s contagiousness, another will make a cogent case for masking long before the C.D.C. did. If one nonscientist offers some dubious casualty projections, another may tease out a high-profile model’s crucial faults. And if a certain line of argument is bad — as I think, and argued last week, that the right-wing anti-lockdown argument is bad — then it has to be judged on its own merits, not just dismissed because it lacks the C.D.C.’s patina.
The official experts, under such conditions, are most trustworthy insofar as their admonitions track with nonexpert common sense. The approach that most experts are currently urging, for instance, is not some complicated high-science approach to disease management, but the most basic pre-modern method of disease control, as obvious to 15th-century Florentines as to 21st-century New Yorkers — shut things down, quarantine the sick and hope for the best.
Whereas the more specific and granular the experts get, the more the fluidity and chaos of the situation make their pronouncements dubious. It’s good that we’re modeling the arc of the pandemic, but that doesn’t make any of the models trustworthy. It’s good that we’re trying to figure out how the disease spreads, but none of the claims so far about how you’re most likely to get it (from air, surfaces or otherwise) or who is most at risk (whether from viral load or pre-existing conditions) can be considered at all definitive. It’s good that we’re practicing social distancing, but all of the rules we’re implementing are just rough and ready guesstimates.
And you don’t want to overweight the pronouncements of official science in a situation that requires experimentation and adaptation and a certain amount of gambling. Yes, you should trust Anthony Fauci more than Donald Trump when it comes to the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine. But the exigencies of the crisis require that experiments outrun the confidence of expert conclusions and the pace of bureaucratic certainty. So if you’re a doctor on the front lines trying to keep your patients from ending up on a ventilator, Dr. Fauci’s level of caution can’t be yours, and you shouldn’t be waiting for the double-blind control trial to experiment with off-label drugs that Spanish and Chinese doctors claim are helping patients
Douthat’s op-ed is valuable and reminds us of the fallible and provisional nature of our knowledge, particularly in times of crisis. It nicely complements Roger Koppl’s posts, which build on his remarkable book, Expert Failure.
One point I am not that persuaded by in Douthat’s narrative is in the quote above, and concerns the trustworthiness of experts insofar “as their admonitions track with nonexpert common sense”. If experts are valuable as their prescriptions coincide with common sense, why do we need them? I do not see as a point of strength in the current reaction against Covid19 the fact that experts are urging “not some complicated high-science approach to disease management, but the most basic pre-modern method of disease control”. Would you trust an MD recommending the same kind of therapy his forerunners practices even only one century ago? Even political scientists and economists have learned something since 15th century Florence, not to mention sciences such as biology, that have completely changed the way in which they understand sickness (and, of course, discovered the existence of viruses, in the meanwhile). It may well be that shutdowns are the only weapons we have against the epidemic, that no other option was truly viable in such a short time, that it is not technology but rather this sort of collective action which can protect us now. But I do not see that as reinforcing the position of experts, nor our trust in them.