Who are the experts?
By Scott Sumner
Ezra Klein recently had a piece on Covid-19 in the NYT, which pointed out that Alex Tabarrok has been ahead of the curve on many issues:
[B]est as I can tell, Tabarrok has repeatedly been proved right, and ideas that sounded radical when he first argued for them command broader support now. What I’ve come to think of as the Tabarrok agenda has come closest to being adopted in Britain, which delayed second doses, approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine despite its data issues, is pushing at-home testing and permitted human challenge trials, in which volunteers are exposed to the coronavirus to speed the testing of treatments. And for now it’s working: Britain has vaccinated a larger percentage of its population than the rest of Europe and the United States have and is seeing lower daily case rates and deaths.
When I point this out to people, they often respond that he is not an expert and that we should rely on the opinions of those with expertise in the field. There are two problems with this argument:
1. The experts do not agree among themselves. Experts in the UK favor challenge trials. They favor the use of AstraZeneca vaccine. They favor the first dose first policy. Indeed you can find experts that agree with Alex on almost all of his Covid recommendations.
2. Alex is an expert on the subject area that he is discussing—public policy. He’s not an expert on how to design a new vaccine, but he is not offering advice on how to do so. Rather he’s offering advice on how to conduct public policy in an environment of uncertainty. He has expertise in this area.
If you look at all the opinions that Alex has offered over the past 15 months, it is hard to find a single one where a lack of scientific expertise has any bearing on his specific policy proposals. Alex looks at the statements made by public health leaders such as Dr. Fauci, and notices that the arguments are often flawed. And he’s right. He notices that countries that have followed his advice are doing better than we are. He looks at scientific estimates of the risks and benefits of various vaccine approaches. He understands that it hurts someone just as much when their family member dies of errors of omission as from errors of commission. Many experts do not understand this point.
If I am wrong, please show me where I’m wrong. Show me an example of the advice Alex offered that was later shown to be wrong because he was unaware of technical scientific information.