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Carl Bergstrom on COVID-19 in The Atlantic

Friday, May 1, 2020 - 11:00 to Saturday, August 1, 2020 - 11:00

Carl Bergstrom, biology professor, was quoted in The Atlantic in a guide to making sense of the coronavirus.

Expertise is not just about knowledge, but also about the capacity to spot errors. Ginn couldn’t see them in his own work; Bergstrom could. The rest of us are more likely to fall in the former group than the latter. We hunger for information, but lack the know-how to evaluate it or the sources that provide it. “This is the epistemological crisis of the moment: There’s a lot of expertise around, but fewer tools than ever to distinguish it from everything else,” says Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and an Atlantic contributing writer. “Pure credentialism doesn’t always work. People have self-published a lot of terrible pieces on Medium, but some of the best early ones that explained stuff to laypeople were from tech guys.”
Bergstrom agrees that experts shouldn’t be dismissive gatekeepers. “There’s a lot of talent out there, and we need all hands on deck,” he says. For example, David Yu, a hockey analyst, created a tool that shows how predictions from the most influential COVID-19 model in the U.S. have changed over time. “Looking at that thing for, like, an hour helped me see things I hadn’t seen for three weeks,” Bergstrom says.

A lack of expertise becomes problematic when it’s combined with extreme overconfidence, and with society’s tendency to reward projected confidence over humility. “When scientists offer caveats instead of absolutes,” Gralinski says, “that uncertainty we’re trained to acknowledge makes it sound like no one knows what’s going on, and creates opportunities for people who present as skeptics.” Science itself isn’t free from that dynamic, either. Through flawed mechanisms like the Nobel Prize, the scientific world elevates individuals for work that is usually done by teams, and perpetuates the myth of the lone genius. Through attention, the media reward voices that are outspoken but not necessarily correct. Those voices are disproportionately male.
The idea that there are no experts is overly glib. The issue is that modern expertise tends to be deep, but narrow. Even within epidemiology, someone who studies infectious diseases knows more about epidemics than, say, someone who studies nutrition. But pandemics demand both depth and breadth of expertise. To work out if widespread testing is crucial for controlling the pandemic, listen to public-health experts; to work out if widespread testing is possible, listen to supply-chain experts. To determine if antibody tests can tell people if they’re immune to the coronavirus, listen to immunologists; to determine if such testing is actually a good idea, listen to ethicists, anthropologists, and historians of science. No one knows it all, and those who claim to should not be trusted.

In a pandemic, the strongest attractor of trust shouldn’t be confidence, but the recognition of one’s limits, the tendency to point at expertise beyond one’s own, and the willingness to work as part of a whole. “One signature a lot of these armchair epidemiologists have is a grand solution to everything,” Bergstrom says. “Usually we only see that coming from enormous research teams from the best schools, or someone’s basement.”


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