The reader should know upfront that I am completely unqualified to speak about pretty much every topic in this series. I am not a virologist, an epidemiologist, an infectious disease specialist, a biologist, a microbiologist, an immunologist, a mathematician, a statistician, a mathematical epidemiologist, an epidemiological mathematician, a doctor, a nurse, a nurse’s aide, a public health bureaucrat, an academic, an economist, a risk analyst, a politician, a journalist, a soldier, a policeman, a pundit, a podcaster, an op-ed writer, a thought leader, a content creator, an advertising executive, a marketing expert, a public relations specialist, a funeral director, a grief counsellor, a psychotherapist, a priest, a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker.
There is an idea that is very fashionable these days that only experts may talk about things. One of the most poignant examples of that attitude I have seen was a video where one of my scientific heroes, Kary Mullis, was addressing an audience at a university in the USA. Mullis, a classic iconoclast in the Feynman tradition, inevitably spoke some dissenting opinions about some topic or other. A man arose from the audience during question time and, rather than disagree about the content of what Mullis had said, simply told him he was not qualified to speak. He was not an expert in that field and shouldn’t be talking about it. Mullis put the man in his place but it was quite clear that many others in the audience agreed with the man. For a second it seemed that a mob might form against a Nobel Prize winner for science for talking about, well, science.
Let me reiterate: I am not qualified and I am not a Nobel Prize winner. If you think these things disqualify me from speaking, you may as well stop reading right now.
That a blind faith in the experts is a big part of what caused the corona event is a central thesis of this series of posts. In my opinion, we need a society of free citizens who are willing and able to question their leaders and the experts. I don’t believe that’s just a moral issue, I believe it’s a practical one. We need that kind of society so that we don’t make the mistakes that we have seen in 2020.
We need it because both science and democracy require it.
The drift towards blind faith in expertise and the problems that it brings has already been subject to cogent and powerful intellectual critique. It was at the heart of the cybernetics and systems thinking movements in the 20th century. One of the best books in that canon is Gerald Weinberg’s General Systems Thinking. It explains in detail the kinds of errors that experts get into and how to avoid them.
One of the main ways to avoid the errors of the expert is not to get bogged down in details. This doesn’t mean that drilling down into the minutiae isn’t necessary sometimes, just that you must always be able to come up for air and incorporate what you found into a bigger picture. Like a deep-sea diver, you have to keep a connection back to the surface lest you disappear forever into the depths.
Another way to avoid error in complex domains is to have as many different models as you can. When dealing with complexity, you simply cannot put all your eggs in one basket. It is better to know the basics in ten different domains that to know everything about one.
The systems thinking outlined by Weinberg set itself the seemingly modest task of avoiding error. Those looking for heroism and grandiose, world-changing schemes will not find much inspiration in it. But egotism has always been a hindrance when it to comes to science and to my mind one of the defining features of the corona event is hubris. Belief in experts seems to go hand-in-hand with believing that we know more than we really do.
If these ideas are new to you, I invite you to use this series of posts to judge their worth.
These posts are the work of a non-expert, an amateur, a systems thinker. They are written in the spirit of science as defined by Richard Feynman as “the belief in the ignorance of experts.” They contain no definitive answers but best guesses. I believe that in the real world, with all its irreducible complexity, that is all we can hope for. We must avoid large errors so that we can keep making our best guesses and through them to keep reaching forward into the unknown to see what we might find.
I hope you find something here. I guess that you will.
All posts in this series:-