The Death of Expertise? – COVID scientists & Health Officials in the public eye need protection from threats.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Azimov
Image Credit:

I’ve been holding off on posting this for over two weeks now (primarily because of the Azimov quote at the beginning). But these Tweets describing recent comments by Florida’s new political Surgeon General Joseph Ladopo, and Peter Navarro calling Dr, Fauci “the most evil man I ever met” finally pushed me over the edge:

Image from H. Soch’s Twitter Timeline, 10/21/2021
Image from H. Soch’s Twitter Timeline, 10/22/2021

My original intended post follows:

A few weeks ago, I posted an article on this blog about Medtwitter and the personal attacks being leveled at highly respected medical professionals in the public arena, many of them for the first time. Every day, researchers are interviewed in the media, advise policy-makers and write social media posts. They might be discussing the latest coronavirus data, explaining and interpreting new research, or commenting on government policies. Some are now as recognizable as celebrities. For many, the attention has had unpleasant consequences.

Nature has surveyed a subset of researchers who have spoken to the media about COVID-19 and found that 47 people — some 15% of the 321 respondents — had received death threats and that 72 had received threats of physical or sexual violence.

Image Credit: Nature analysis

In response to other survey questions, the researchers who reported the highest frequency of trolling or personal attacks were more likely to say that it had affected their willingness to speak to the media in the future.

Image Credit: Nature analysis

But the examples cited around COVID-19, although sobering enough on their own, reflect a general trend that has been accelerating in recent years – an attack on expertise of any kind. While expertise isn’t dead yet, it’s in trouble. We do not just have a healthy skepticism about experts: instead, we actively resent them, with many people assuming that experts are wrong simply by virtue of being experts. And it doesn’t help when anyone can attach titles like “subject matter expert” or “thought leader” to profiles on social media sites like LinkedIn or Twitter.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating here, I highly recommend you read an excellent book by Tom Nichols titled “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.” In the book, Nichols shows how this rejection of experts has occurred: the internet’s openness, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine, among other reasons.

“I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”

Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

Nichols’ assertion is never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equivalent to anyone else’s. The issue, Nichols says, is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. This is new in American culture. It represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other. This is a remarkable change in our public discourse. And when this trend is applied to medicine and public health, the results can be disastrous.

My take – Intimidation is unacceptable on any scale, and the Nature survey findings should be of concern to all those who care about scientists’ well-being. Such behavior also risks discouraging researchers from contributing to public discussion — which would be a huge loss, given their expertise, during the pandemic. Taking steps to support scientists who face harassment does not mean silencing robust, open criticism and discussion. The coronavirus pandemic has seen plenty of disagreement and changing views as new data have come in, as well as differing stances on which policies to adopt. Scientists and health officials should expect their research to be questioned and challenged and should welcome critical feedback that is given in good faith. But threats of violence and extreme online abuse do nothing to encourage debate — and risk undermining science communication at a time when it has never mattered more.

Leave a Reply