COVID’s Retreat Doesn’t Prove Experts Should Rule

Why the public health establishment mattered far less during the pandemic than you might think

Image Credit: Coolpicture/Getty Images

Recently I joined in an online meeting of think tank leaders from all over the world, where most of the other participants were enthusing about their countries’ success in cutting COVID down to size. To them, it meant that think tanks (among other purveyors of expert policy advice) now enjoyed a “mandate for leadership, common purpose and change in a post-pandemic world.”

Assuming that I shared this view, the organizers of the conference unwisely asked me to serve on a panel to describe what this new mandate looked like. Instead, I played the role of the skunk at the garden party because I think there is no such mandate arising from our brush with the pandemic.

Why? Because COVID has demonstrated that the cool, dispassionate, comprehensive and science-based knowledge of experts (including think tankers) is largely a myth. It is certainly no basis on which to claim some kind of superior ability or perspective to govern or to improve our lives.

The Limits of ‘Expertise’

Much of the argument that experts should be granted a “mandate for leadership” relies on the idea that we know what we need to know in order to act intelligently. In other words, it is based on a presumption of knowledge. The baseline condition of humanity (including experts), however, is that we are ignorant, not knowledgeable. Knowledge is scarce, not abundant.

The knowledge we possess, including knowledge about how to respond to viral outbreaks, is always and unavoidably partial and imperfect. This is doubly true when you consider that each outbreak is going to have unique characteristics. The next virus may be, as COVID is, fast-evolving, presenting policymakers with a moving target.

Did “expertise” save us during the coronavirus outbreak? No. Sure, there were lots of experts peddling their expertise around the world. But those of us who actually looked at what they were recommending soon found that equally credible experts were often offering diametrically opposed advice and venomously denouncing each other as “defectors” from the “consensus,” which is about as unscientific a stance as I can imagine. Some experts’ advice was followed in some places and it worked out well, as in Taiwan. In other places, different experts’ advice yielded less impressive results. And the Taiwan example shows that sometimes expert advice worked quite well—until it didn’t.

The policies that eventually prevailed did not come about because policymakers had to acquiesce to some expert consensus. There was no such consensus and still is not today, 18 months into COVID. Mostly what happened was that different policymakers listened to people who sounded convincing and had the policymaker’s ear. The advice was sometimes correct, sometimes not, and sometimes neither particularly helpful nor harmful.

Lessons Learned—Or Not

When the smoke has cleared and we have enough distance to draw lessons from this particular public health crisis, a lot of thinking will go into what those lessons are. Many of them will be unexpected and have nothing to do with public health or medical expertise. For what it’s worth, I suspect we will find that a healthy dose of China skepticism was a positive factor, as Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and others demonstrated when they discounted Chinese blandishments and the World Health Organization’s early advice about the seriousness of the outbreak and what it portended. That suspicion, however, may not be borne out in the final analysis, and other factors we cannot yet know may turn out to have been influential or decisive.

Whatever the lessons, it is certain that they will be only moderately useful next time because circumstances will be new and therefore everyone’s expertise will be of limited value. Yet we can be confident that when the next pandemic strikes, the “lessons from COVID” will be trotted out by the experts, when the state of our knowledge will again be partial and imperfect, and COVID may be more or less relevant. There is a reason why generals always fight the last war: because that’s what they’re expert on.

It is important to dwell for a moment on the extent to which the public policy response to COVID relied on an assumption of ignorance, not knowledge. Public health experts and epidemiologists and microbiologists are not, in the ordinary course of things, themselves experts in the many other areas of expertise on which a robust response to a pandemic must rely. They know little about how to make testing kits and whose testing kits will prove the most useful. They know little about manufacturing vaccines, supplying masks and other personal protective equipment, telephone tracking apps, logistics or the many other things that may be needed.

Governments and private donors didn’t give to some single government or private lab—not even the mighty Centers for Disease Control, no matter how many experts it employed—the job of isolating the virus, analyzing it, discovering the best way to test for it, developing a vaccine to contain it, or testing all existing pharmaceutical products against it to see if any of them worked.

Instead, many public and private labs around the world received resources intended to hasten the discovery of COVID-related knowledge. Each of these labs then tried a bunch of different things in the hope that some of them would work. Different researchers in effect competed with each other to try and find the most effective therapeutic agents; or to manufacture cheap and quick testing kits; or to design, test and then produce an effective vaccine. This is the exact opposite of pretensions that experts “have the answers” to COVID—or, for that matter, poverty or climate change—and that only the obtuse resistance of the rest of us is preventing them from making our lives better.

In another pandemic-mitigation effort in 2020, the Montreal General Hospital Foundation and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre launched a “global innovation challenge” backed by a $200,000 prize. This is another example of a strategy that sought to ferret out knowledge wherever it might be found in the world, regardless of nationality or public vs. private status—in this case to find a design for a simple, low-cost, easy-to-manufacture and easy-to-maintain ventilator that could be deployed anywhere.

Lots of people discovered unsuspected things about themselves as a result of the spread of COVID. The pandemic drove home that we are not just ignorant about the physical world or biology or vaccine creation: We are ignorant about ourselves and spend much of our lives discovering what we can do and who we are. Hockey equipment manufacturers, for example, discovered they could make face shields for medical personnel. Car parts manufacturers learned they could make the medical ventilators needed to turn ordinary hospital beds into ICU facilities—and opened up export markets in the bargain. A pillow manufacturer transformed itself, virtually overnight, into a producer of high-quality medical face masks.

All these knowledge-seeking strategies (and others I have not mentioned) are necessary because, while each of us is expert in a narrow range of knowledge, no one has an overview of the sum of what everyone knows. The vaunted expertise of those advising governments on their response to the crisis is impotent outside the advisers’ extremely narrow area of knowledge. There is nothing new in this. I am merely pointing out that the pandemic has done absolutely nothing to make the case for rule by experts stronger. It has merely confirmed the already well-known weakness of that case. And if we substituted, say, “climate change” or “eliminating poverty” for “COVID,” the argument would be the same.

Why You Cannot Win the Peace

As for the notion that we should generalize from the alleged social solidarity of the COVID crisis and apply its methods to resolving a host of other issues, this is a vain hope. Why?

Think about the similar phenomenon after the end of World War II. In Britain, six years of rationing, bombing, shortages and “solidarity” led the Labour Party to promise to carry that spirit and those methods into running peacetime society. Their slogan in the 1945 general election (which they won in a landslide) was, “And now win the peace.”

What they failed to realize was that war and peace are not the same thing. In the war, there was an overriding existential objective to which the vast majority of Britons voluntarily subordinated everything else: to defeat Hitler. When peace arrived, however, people quickly tired of overweening officials telling them what to do in the name of the “spirit of Dunkirk.” The public increasingly chafed under the privations of peacetime rationing.

Above all else they craved a return to normality, by which they meant a state of affairs where they made their own decisions about what mattered to them. Without the shared overriding goal of victory in war, “social solidarity” rapidly came to be seen for what it was: license for bureaucrats to order people around in accordance with other people’s ideas, mostly those of the “experts” who were going to fix society’s problems.

If it took only a year or two for people to begin to find the spirit of Dunkirk an irksome rallying cry, my guess is that the COVID outbreak and our response will prove even more evanescent. Many people love the idea that everyone else will drop their stubborn attachment to their selfish priorities and sacrifice their narrow vision for the common good. But what they usually have in mind is that the rest of us should give up what we want and pursue what they want instead.

The fact of the matter is that outside times of rare crisis such as a war or an epidemic, we do not have a common set of concrete objectives on which we agree. And yet a consensus on overriding objectives is the indispensable condition of social cooperation on a large scale imposed from above. The responses to most crises cannot be replicated once the crisis is over.

I predict that people will be astonished at how quickly everyone will want to return to the status quo ante COVID. Precisely because the default human condition is ignorance, not knowledge, human beings are condemned to learn, including from pandemics. We just will not learn what the fans of expert rule hope we will.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter