In these times of uncertainty, we’re bombarded with information coming from all sides and angles. Cow dung and camel urine, bleach and fermented fish, sunbathing and smoking have all been advocated as COVID-19 cures. High-profile chiropractors, Hollywood celebrities and even international tennis stars are publicly speaking out against the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. Naturopaths, herbalists, shamans and wellness gurus are having a field day pushing various potions and practices as ways to strengthen one’s immune system against the coronavirus. How do we successfully navigate our way through all this noise? How do we distinguish between sound science and the hocus pocus? Whom should we trust during the pandemic?
The answer, I think, is fairly obvious: we should trust the experts.
First and foremost, we should trust those experts who possess the relevant training and competence in a particular field or domain. This means we should trust the recommendations of an epidemiologist when it comes to matters concerning epidemiology, a virologist when it comes to matters concerning virology, and so on. We should, therefore, be skeptical about those who offer recommendations in a field in which they lack the relevant training and competence.
There are many examples of individuals making recommendations in fields that go beyond their actual competence, but the most glaring recent public example involves Dr. Scott Atlas who, by replacing Dr. Anthony Fauci in August 2020, became Donald Trump’s de facto health-care policy adviser. Even though Atlas (who is a trained radiologist) has no formal training in public health, infectious diseases or epidemiology, this didn’t stop him from pushing for a wide range of reckless policies on how to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Atlas has railed against the use of masks, questioned whether children can transmit the virus and suggested only symptomatic individuals should be tested for the virus. He has even cast doubt on the practice of quarantining asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Most alarming, however, was Atlas’ “do-nothing” approach to ending the pandemic. Atlas’ recommendation, specifically, was to let the coronavirus run wild by allowing massive numbers of people to get sick and die with the hope of eventually achieving natural herd immunity.
Atlas’ recommendations are a collection of pixie dust, wishful thinking and pseudoscience. But they’re not just wildly unscientific; they’re also potentially harmful, as they undermine the sound science that guides effective health-care policy, and so directly threaten the health and well-being of the general public.
Since Atlas fails to have the relevant training in public health care, epidemiology, virology or infectious diseases, he can’t be considered a trustworthy source of information regarding the coronavirus. Atlas’ expertise in radiology, impressive as it may be, simply does not transfer to these other domains, which, obviously, require their own highly specialized training and skill set. You wouldn't go to a podiatrist for a heart attack. Nor would you go to a plumber when your car breaks down. In just the same way, you shouldn’t seek guidance from a radiologist, even a highly accomplished one, in order to manage a raging pandemic.
This brings me to a second point: we shouldn’t simply trust those experts who possess the relevant training. Rather, we should trust those experts who possess the relevant training and whose recommendations cohere with other similarly trained experts.
Consider the recent example of Dr. Judy Mikovits, a professionally trained virologist with a PhD in molecular biology and star of the conspiracy video Plandemic. Despite her expertise in virology, however, Mikovits has promoted a number of bizarre claims regarding the coronavirus.
Among other things, Mikovits has claimed that mask-wearing somehow “activates” the coronavirus, continually reinfects the wearer and potentially kills the wearer due to excess carbon dioxide inhalation; that vaccines don’t actually save people, but rather kill them; that a vaccine is not needed to prevent COVID-19; and that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine is effective against the coronavirus.
It’s easy to see how the non-scientist might be bamboozled by Mikovits, as she presents herself as a trustworthy figure. Unlike other conspiracy theorists who shout or ramble, Mikovits is articulate and speaks calmly. Her recommendations regarding the coronavirus, however, should not be trusted.
During this pandemic, we should trust those experts who possess the relevant training and competence in a particular field or domain, writes philosophy professor Colin Ruloff. #COVID19 #vaccines
The fundamental problem is not that Mikovits lacks the relevant training in virology. Rather, the problem is that Mikovits’ recommendations in virology aren’t supported by what the overwhelming majority of virologists already affirm about the origin, transmission and management of the coronavirus. Since Mikovits’ opinions are so completely detached from, and radically at odds with the basic principles of virological science, we therefore have excellent reasons to be suspicious of her recommendations. In fact, we should reject them outright.
So, how does one determine whether someone’s recommendations regarding the coronavirus are trustworthy?
Here are two suggestions.
First, determine whether the individual whose recommendations you are evaluating possesses the relevant training and competence. Ask yourself: Is this person making recommendations that fall within their area of actual competence?
Second, determine whether those recommendations are consistent with the recommendations of other scientists. Ask yourself: Are these recommendations supported by those of other similarly trained scientists? If you’re able to answer both of these questions with a yes, then you’re in a reasonably strong position to accept that expert’s scientific recommendations. If a person has the relevant training and offers recommendations that are supported by other similarly trained scientists, it would be reasonable for you to accept that person’s recommendations.
It’s important to recognize that, even though the experts possess the skills, advanced training and competence that will enable them to be successful in a particular domain, whether it be epidemiology, virology or plumbing, the experts are fallible. Sometimes the experts make mistakes, especially when they’re confronted with unanticipated challenges. But the fact that experts sometimes make mistakes doesn’t mean we should distrust the experts altogether. That would be overkill. Since the experts possess skills and techniques that vastly surpass those of the non-expert, we reduce the possibility of error and greatly increase the chances of success in a particular domain by placing our trust in them.
And placing our trust in others is a good thing, not a bad thing. Since we can’t all be equally informed about a given subject — since, in other words, we can’t all be experts in everything — a natural division of cognitive labour is to be expected in society.
Since this is so, it makes sense to defer to the experts and place our trust in them. Deferring to the experts isn’t blind acceptance or passive acquiescence. Rather, deferring to the experts is the simple acknowledgement that some people know a lot more than us in certain matters. It’s the recognition that certain people possess skills and capacities that we lack.
We already routinely defer to dentists, plumbers, electricians, cartographers, and the like. Likewise, we should defer to epidemiologists, virologists, vaccinologists and other scientists deploying their formidable range of skills to combat the pandemic. After all, our health and well-being depend upon it.
Colin Ruloff teaches philosophy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. His research includes the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of mind.