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Covid-19: Are we in danger of listening too much to experts?

Covid-19: Are we in danger of listening too much to experts?
From mad cow disease to SARS to bird flu, the scientists and politicians have warned of impending catastrophes – and got it badly wrong. Now they are at it again, we should retain a degree of skepticism.

For decades, scientists and politicians have warned us about ‘the big one’, a major pandemic on the scale of the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918-19. A decade ago it was H1N1 ‘swine’ flu. Before that we were told that SARS in 2003 was going to be a major pandemic, or perhaps ‘the big one’ would be the H5N1 ‘bird’ flu outbreak in 2005. But these all turned out to be relatively minor events.

Moreover, there has been panic over a huge range of things. There was the Y2K ‘Millennium Bug’. The world's computers were apparently on the verge of shutting down as the year 2000 started because older systems only used two digits to store the year part of dates – so ‘99’ would be followed by ‘00’, creating chaos. But the problem was noticed well in advance and dealt with fairly easily.

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In the UK, there were alarming stories of how variant-CJD, the ‘human form of mad cow disease’ – first reported in 1995 – was going to kill hundreds of thousands of people. From time to time, there have been renewed reports of a ‘vCJD time bomb’ about to go off. In fact, there have been just 178 deaths in total and only two since 2011.

All these exaggerations have led to a considerable degree of cynicism about public-health advice. Time and again, wild claims of catastrophe have turned out to be false. No wonder that many people's first reaction to Covid-19 – including mine – was ‘here we go again’. In the UK, the government has strengthened its advice this week to older people to isolate themselves for the next 12 weeks and for everyone to avoid pubs, clubs and restaurants. But even the prime minister's 79-year-old father, Stanley Johnson, has declared: ‘Of course I'll go to a pub if I need to go to a pub!

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This cynicism is reflected in reactions to the outbreak elsewhere. For example, President Trump was initially dismissive of claims about what he called the ‘Chinese virus’. But in the past week or so, he too has switched to demanding greater action. Republican voters in general are much more skeptical of claims about the virus. According to a recent poll, only 40 percent of Republicans believe the coronavirus is ‘a real threat’, compared to 76 percent of Democrats.

Now that we are nearly two months into the epidemic, we can see clearly that this disease is likely to be much more deadly than those previous outbreaks. It looks like it kills something like one percent of those who contract it, though there is a high degree of uncertainty about that. It may be more or less deadly, we don't yet know. The disease is particularly lethal in older people or those with underlying health conditions. The number of cases that require intensive care is far outstripping the capacity of intensive-care facilities. We have no idea how many people have had it without symptoms or with only mild symptoms – but as long as there are many people who are infected-but-well, the disease will spread rapidly in normal circumstances.

But that doesn't mean that we should suspend our skepticism. For example, the UK government is relying heavily on behavioral science, which suggests that people's willingness to follow strict rules and regulations is time-limited, so any actions must be done at the ‘right time’. But behavioral science is dogged by problems of replication – that one study offering eye-opening insights can't be replicated by other researchers. Should we place such reliance on psychology?

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Authorities in China, Italy, France and Spain have implemented severe lockdowns on public movement and economic activity. What damage do such policies cause, both in personal and economic terms? Will the benefits of such lockdowns outweigh this damage or will they do more harm than good? For example, while few people may be infected when a lockdown is in place, what happens when freer movement is possible again? If the dislocation and reorganisation of society is being driven by the demands of experts, we should keep demanding that politicians and experts justify themselves.

In the longer term, is it desirable to have experts so prominently placed in both decision-making and communication? As long ago as 1910, journalist George Wiliam Russell, editor of a periodical called The Irish Homestead, made a point which has since been much repeated and is usually credited to Winston Churchill. It's worth quoting in full:

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 speciality 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.

We must ensure that skepticism doesn't lapse into cynicism. We have to trust, to a large extent, that those who run our societies are acting in good faith, faced with a deadly illness in circumstances of considerable uncertainty. But that trust is on loan and must be lived up to. As businesses collapse, livelihoods suffer and individuals experience loneliness, isolation or worse, we must keep asking questions.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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