I’m No Expert, But…


From top: Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health Dr Tony Holohan; Donnchadh Ó Conaill

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, there seems to have been almost as much discussion of misinformation around the virus as there has been of the virus itself.

What has not been commented on so much is something slightly different: not misinformation, but information. Specifically, how should we (the non-specialist public) think about expert views and decisions which have been taken based (at least in part) on expert advice?

Given that people who are relatively well-informed about the outbreak disagree on some important issues, how should we (the relatively not-well-informed) evaluate the different claims?

I am not talking here about advice on which there is a strong consensus, i.e., the need for social distancing, to frequently wash your hands, etc. I am interested specifically in views concerning how societies as a whole should react, on which there is less consensus.

Many European countries have closed their schools and restricted businesses, but not all have done so (and some did it much more quickly than others). Some have imposed travel restrictions, but again not all; some but not all have already moved into lockdown. None reacted as quickly as Asian countries like South Korea or Taiwan.

Simplifying a great deal, we can ask: which country’s response is correct?

Part of the problem is that we cannot simply ‘trust the experts’. The worry here is not some generalised distrust of officialdom or the elites.

This is a dangerous phenomenon when it comes to public health, and may yet play an important role if and when a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed. But the problem I have in mind is different. It is that the experts disagree, and different official bodies in different states have made different decisions.

Another easy option is to rely on what some specific experts have advised. Anyone following discussions of the pandemic online will have come across criticism of the Irish authorities for not reacting quickly or decisively enough, based on what other countries have done and on

In thinking about how the Irish government have handled this, it is worth keeping some things in mind. First, there does appear to be some disagreement among even very well-informed people as to what the best response should be.

More specifically, while everyone agrees on the need to flatten the curve, there is disagreement as to how to best do this: which response would be most effective, how quickly each response should be implemented, how long they can be kept in place, etc.

Second, it’s not sufficient to acknowledge one’s lack of expertise but to then reach a firm conclusion based on what some specific expert or experts have said.

Part of our lack of expertise is precisely not knowing how representative the views of any specific expert are, or of how well-founded their views may be. Even experts can make mistakes, or be working with dubious assumptions or faulty data. We should look for further reasons to accept what even someone with a high degree of expertise is telling us.

It is worth considering a specific example, the widely-shared article by Tomas Pueyo.

Note that he is not an expert, in the sense of being an epidemiologist or someone who works in a closely-related field, though he clearly has some relevant expertise in terms of statistics and modelling. Nor does he seem to have access to information which is not generally available.

That said, I think there are reasons to take his views seriously. First, his article has been read millions of times, so if his analysis of the data was fundamentally flawed there is a good chance this would have been pointed out (at any rate, there are large incentives for other people with relevant expertise to point out flaws in a very widely-read article on such an important topic).

Likewise, the data he is drawing on is publically available, which again provides an opportunity to correct any mistakes or selective use of statistics.

Second, many of his specific claims make sense (e.g., his discussion of the way mortality rates seem to be sensitive to the availability of intensive care facilities).

None of us can evaluate new information without relying on what we already assume to be correct, and it seems correct to suggest that if the number of patients who need intensive care outstrips available facilities, more of these patients will die.

Third, Pueyo goes through his reasoning in a fairly detailed fashion. Even a non-expert reader (like myself) can see how the evidence he marshals supports his conclusions.

To a fairly large degree (though not entirely) the persuasive force of his argument does not rest on his status as an expert or because we trust him to have found the right data and analysed it correctly.

In other words, the more you can see how a given conclusion is supported by specific examples or data, the less weight you will need to place on basically trusting that specific experts know what they are doing.

We can never avoid placing any weight on this; it is the basic issue facing all non-experts attempting to understand what an expert on a specific topic is saying. (And versions of this problem arise even for other experts; no-one is going to be able to double-check all the data or verify all of the experimental findings which they accept as true.)

This is the price we pay for relying on experts; at a certain point, we must simply trust their expertise. But Pueyo has minimised the degree to which we must place this kind of trust in him.

To be clear: I’m not saying Pueyo is definitely correct, let alone that it is obvious what governments should do (even setting aside the complicating factor that each government will be faced with a different set of circumstances).

But there are good reasons to accept his argument, and good reasons to worry that Ireland’s response, at least initially, was too slow.

Donnchadh Ó Conaill is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is writing here in a personal capacity.


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20 thoughts on “I’m No Expert, But…

  1. Tony

    And it’s exactly that type of navel gazing fluffy-talk that will help us fill the long hours of isolation in the coming weeks. Fair play

  2. Dr.Fart

    even in vardkars speech he said “dont listen to the news too much, and don’t look at social media too much” .. so the social media bit makes sense coz theres misinformation, but he literally said the news. dont listen to the news. i don’t think its a case of ‘dont panic people’ i think its more a case of they dont fully know about the virus because its new and different to anything they do know about, and they dont want to sound like they know nothing.

    i asked the HSE the same question on twitter as on facebook, and both answers were different. They don’t know whats goin on.

    I saw an irish doctor post a video about how to wash your hands, and stay safe from the virus, but as a professional, i could tell the advice he gave was based entirely just on combatting a viral infection, such as the flu etc., but covid-19 isnt a flu. it’s different.

    1. some old queen

      No its not a flu but it is a viral infection so in what way was advising people to wash their hands wrong?

      1. Dr.Fart

        i didnt say that was wrong. im saying some elements of how to combat a virus are only applicable to virus’ we know. We do not know this virus. It’s new, it shares characteristics with known virus’ but also has many new and unpredictable characteristics. So some of his advice is misguided. For example he said wearing a mask “is total horsesheet” .. which can be the case for flu’s, but in the case of Covid it can be useful, as it’s got more mass than regular virus.

    2. Clampers Outside

      I understood the meaning to be, not to have your head stuck in rolling Coronavirus news 24/7. He didn’t say, nor could it be interpreted as, ‘don’t pay attention to the news’ in all fairness.

    3. MaryLou's ArmaLite

      He didn’t say don’t listen to the news, he said don’t listen to the news too much. There is a difference.

  3. Joe Small

    I think some people could contribute most but shutting up and not spouting nonsense like this which wastes everyone’s time and helps no one. As an academic, I accept that you’re used to having opinions that no one takes any notice of. Long may it continue.

  4. Madam X

    I read that article long as it was. it’s hard to argue with the conclusions. Stopping flights earlier from Italy should have been done
    Shutting pubs has been done. Now what about non essential shops? At the moment it seems to me we are still not doing everything we can to limit the spread. The UK is still in la la land from what I can see. . The next three weeks will tell.

    1. Cian

      thing is – we don’t want to stop the spread. We just want to slow it so the hospitals can cope.
      If we managed to stop it (before a substantial number of people caught it, and recovered) then as soon as the rest of the world is back to normal and we reopen the country…we’d immediately have a massive infection.

  5. Shitferbrains

    Pueyo tweets that the UK is (was ) delaying action to achieve ” herd immunity ” ; a thoroughly debunked theory.

  6. Matt Pilates

    Do you think we might have a Coronavirus Happy Hour every day between 7 pm and 10 pm where nobody comments any comments about the infection?

  7. Cian

    which country’s response is correct?
    As a philosopher I would have thought you would realise that there are no universal truths.

    That question, as it stands, in unanswerable.

    You need to define the question better if you want a meaningful answer. What do you mean correct? What is the success criteria? Remember the criteria are only measurable only once – we can’t roll back time and look at a different outcome if a different decision was made – so how do you judge ‘correct’.
    The obvious criteria (to me) would seen to be
    – fewest cases of COVID.
    – fewest deaths.
    – least (negative) economic impact.
    But even these are questionable – are all COVID cases equal? are all deaths equal (healthy child Vs unhealthy 98-year-old?

    Other things to consider are the social impacts – different countries implementing the same steps can have different outcomes – some nations are more likely group-oriented (i.e. Japan) and look out for everyone; other countries are individual-orientated (USA) and look out for No. 1. So comparing countries against each other must be done carefully. Similarly, if a country reacted too soon people wouldn’t have bought into it – Hell even in Ireland where we were “too slow” people we out drinking (and are still doing stupid things).

    If Ireland had declared an emergency on 31 December (when the WHO were informed) and had implemented legislation and stopped all travel in/out; and closed schools, pubs, etc. it would meant that we would have had 0 cases and 0 deaths. Would the have been the correct response? No. There would have been blue-murder.

    One last thought – there are unseen affects to all decisions. You need to remember these. At the moment some/all surgery is cancelled. This will have a knock-on effect at some stage in the future. The isolation that people feel will most likely push people to suicide. The money fears (150,000+ job losses) is creating enormous stress on families. etc. These all will have massive impacts that need to be considered in the context of COVID-19. If Ireland had reacted differently all of these would be different – some better/some worse.

    1. Daniel

      @ Cian
      i don’t comment very often, and privately i would disagree with you a lot of the time.
      But i think you have captured and expressed the reality of the decision making perfectly in your comment.
      Restricted and limited hindsight reviews at this point are fairly useless and don’t serve much purpose.

    2. Donnchadh

      Hi Cian,
      Thanks for the comment. As a regular poster here I thought you would realise that it’s a bit naughty to take a quote out of context like that :-)

      A lot of what you say I agree with. Different countries have somewhat different circumstances, and each country must balance different demands. That said, I think comparisons are possible in some cases at least. For instance, based on what we know so far it would be very difficult to make a convincing case that Italy’s response to the virus has been better than Taiwan’s.

      As regards the different demands to be balanced, while it’s not true that public health always trumps every other consideration, in this specific instance the scale of the threat and the likely death rate in the absence of decisive action would lead me to think that measures to limit the spread of the contagion should outweigh the other concerns you mention, at least while the numbers infected are growing exponentially. That’s not to say that the state shouldn’t take steps to limit the economic impact, of course. It’s a matter of what must be prioritised, as opposed to doing nothing else.

      1. Donnchadh

        In Italy it pretty much is – the number of patients needing intensive care has outstripped the available facilities, so doctors are having to decide which patients get effective treatment and which don’t. Basically the healthy child vs unhealthy 98-year-old scenario Cian described above.
        I would say the number one priority of any government at this time would be to avoid this scenario if possible. As Pueyo points out, this is a very plausible reason for the big spike in the death rates in regions which have been very badly hit – their intensive care facilities have been swamped, and patients who otherwise would have probably pulled through are much less likely to make it.

  8. :-Joe

    Why under Obama in the US, was there no quarantine and preventative procedures enforced for the H1N1 virus outbreak that had killed eighteen thousand people at the time?…

    As an alternative viewpoint to the mainstream narrative from a respected, credible and so-called “expert” and for more insight into what’s going on from a different and wider perspective…
    – You can make of it what you like but keep asking questions etc…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeSLFFkIxJk – CLIP
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FR6LXEBngkI – FULL VERSION


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