A plea for a rational usage of experts and ‘science’

“Experts Ought to Be On Tap and Not On Top.” – George William Russell, 1910

This quote, which is possibly from a certain George William Russell from Ireland and first seen publicly in an Irish newspaper in 1910, puts forward a crucial insight and piece of wisdom that way too many policymakers seem to have forgotten during the past two years. The full quote is even more explicit as to what I wish to convey here:

“Our theory, which we have often put forward, is that experts ought to be on tap and not on top. We have had during our career a long and intimate knowledge of experts, most interesting men in their own specialty to which they have devoted themselves with great industry and zeal. But outside this special knowledge, they are generally as foolish and ignorant as any person one could pick up in the street, with no broad knowledge of society or the general principles of legislation.”

This is exactly why I and my colleagues at the Montreal Economic Institute had recommended, soon after the first wave of COVID-19, that provincial governments in Canada, as well as the federal government, should form, and each have at their disposal, an independent, nimble, and small multidisciplinary advisory committee. This way, they could get the feedback and advice from, yes, epidemiologists and alike, but also from economists, psychologists, ethicians, legal experts, and so forth.

Even during a pandemic, there are more considerations that are needed than just public health, and there are undeniable tradeoffs involved in pandemic restrictions. When a government decides to, for instance, take away the right of mobility of its citizens, or their right to worship, or invade their privacy, or impose on them vaccinal passports, or close down businesses, we should be entitled, at the very least, to expect these decisions to be based on a broad range of considerations and perspectives.

Now, some will say, yes, but governments needed to “act quickly.” This may have been true at the onset of the pandemic when we didn’t know any better and knew very little about the disease. However, it is completely unacceptable that we are still caught with the same level of improvisation two years down the road. Furthermore, it would be perfectly possible for governments to say to their multidisciplinary advisory committee: “You have 48 hours to come up with your recommendations and, in the case of the absence of a consensus, with dissenting and minority reports.”

Ultimately it will still be elected officials, political staffers and advisors, and senior bureaucrats calling the shots, barring judicial review and the role of opposition parties. An important convention in our constitutional system is the idea of “ministerial responsibility.” Experts advise, but ministers decide. If we are going to give such extraordinary power to ministers, they should at least be making decisions on the basis of more than just one-trick pony public health experts who have a very limited and narrow set of objectives and considerations in mind, and whose only recommendations seem to virtually always be: “That’s not enough, we must yet impose more restrictions.”

A related and equally annoying mantra that we have heard ad nauseam during this pandemic, and even, I would even dare to say, ad vomitam, is: “We must believe in science”. As if statements made by the aforementioned experts should be treated as irrefutable truths to be followed without any debate or questioning. This is an incredibly sterile and naïve conception of science. Indeed, the “scientific consensus”, if there is ever one, is something that is by definition fluid and almost always evolves over time. And, in the case of the current pandemic, often quite quickly, as we have seen for instance in the position of the said experts regarding the imposition of masks in public places or about the usage of broad-reaching mandatory lockdowns as an appropriate public health tool.

Canada had a variety of official pandemic preparedness plans ready prior to the pandemic, often envisioning much more severe scenarios than the ones we are facing. As the Toronto Sun’s Anthony Furey highlights, the various plans “anticipate a situation worse than the one that is currently unfolding, but they call for less restrictive measures than the ones that have now been enacted.” Prior to the pandemic the World Health Organization strongly opposed the use of lockdowns and similar restrictive measures to deal with infectious diseases. At a conference in March 2019 that was focused on a hypothetical influenza pandemic the WHO team concluded that “most of the currently available evidence on the effectiveness of quarantine on influenza control was drawn from simulation studies, which have a low strength of evidence.” A thorough Wall Street Journal article recently detailed the repeated pre-pandemic rejections of lockdown as a means for controlling airborne viruses like COVID by the scientific community.

There are also geographical differences. For instance, public health officials in Florida have substantially different recommendations and conclusions than their counterparts in the province of Quebec, as I have experienced firsthand very recently.

In fact, saying that we “must believe in science” (as in believing in it blindly and without questions) is a non-scientific statement in and of itself. As my friend Nathalie Elgrably recently pointed out in one of her columns, what we must believe and have trust in is “the scientific method.” That is a method of procedure that has characterized (…) science since the 17th century, consisting of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

To be clear, I am not saying that policymakers or the general public should not attach any importance to the comments, observations, or recommendations of experts, including those of epidemiologists in the context of the current pandemic. Clearly, they have relevant things to tell us in such a context. I am merely saying that their very specialized knowledge is but one input that we (and policymakers) should take into account when forming our opinions, and we must be careful not to conflate the advice and opinions of individual experts as the settled or indisputable truth. In certain cases, it can no doubt be an important one, but it should by no means be the only one. And to suggest otherwise, as way too many mainstream media and politicians have done so far, does a terrible disservice to us all and ultimately undermines the trust that citizens will have in these experts and the scientific process itself.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the MEI. The views reflected in this opinion piece are his own.

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