Politics & Policy

Up from Expertise

Medical staff wait for a patient, infected with coronavirus disease at the station in Strasbourg, France, April 3, 2020. (Patrick Hertzog/Reuters)
Scientists must ultimately address the threat of the virus, but they cannot solve the immediate problem of mobilizing the country against it.

The political-opinion factory has moved from downplaying the coronavirus outbreak to haranguing the president for his alleged dismissal of science. The New York Times’s Paul Krugman charges not just Trump but the Republican Party as a whole with cultivating “an attitude of disdain toward expertise.” Never mind that the president and the media have taken a similar trajectory during this crisis — from dismissal to alertness to panic — while others on the right, such as Tom Cotton, sounded the alarm from the beginning. The underlying assumption that experts alone can resolve this crisis is wrong.

For one, a monolithic expert opinion on the present pandemic does not exist. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, emerged only three months ago; scientists haven’t had nearly enough time to conduct conclusive research into it. And constraints on testing, compounded by uncertainty as to the number of asymptomatic cases, make the current medical data largely unreliable.

While some epidemiologists have used previous flu pandemics to inform their thinking, that approach requires rough estimates of factors such as reproduction and fatality rates, leading to wide variance in projections. To take one example, Oxford University researchers found that as much as 40 percent of the U.K. might be immune to the novel coronavirus, while a team from Imperial College London projected more than 250,000 domestic deaths, even under strict social-distancing measures. For all their sophistication, computational tools rely on inputs that are difficult to observe in real time.

While scientists will ultimately have to address the underlying threat of the disease itself, they cannot solve the immediate problem of mobilizing the country against the virus. The expert fetishists should consider the lackluster response of French president Emmanuel Macron, Europe’s arch-technocrat, whose decision to hold elections during the outbreak doubtlessly increased the number of infections in his country. In contrast with Trump, Macron surrounds himself with a coterie of technicians providing the precise policy prescriptions for any given moment, yet he and Trump came to roughly the same conclusion.

Delaying the elections would have had massive drawbacks too, of course, but that’s the point: No amount of “evidence-based” policymaking can provide an easy path through predicaments in which the choices on offer all promise uncertain outcomes. While the nations of Southeast Asia have tempered the pandemic with “test-and-trace” strategies, their success is more a result of firsthand experience with the 2003 SARS outbreak than of superior scientific capabilities. Widespread use of face masks in South Korea, Japan, and Singapore prior to the pandemic also protected those populations. Thus, decidedly unscientific factors — lived experience, cultural mores — have trumped technical prowess in the fight against this pandemic.

In the West, overreliance on expertise accelerated the outbreak. The World Health Organization, which in a matter of weeks has brought itself permanent disgrace, assured the public in January that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus.” Later on, the WHO incorrectly advised against the use of face masks by the general public. Because we’ve been trained to see science as a monolith that delivers incontrovertible dictates, many of us believed these falsehoods, which drove public messaging for weeks and almost certainly affected ordinary citizens’ decision-making.

On the policy front, dependence on experts delayed the domestic response to COVID-19. While the coronavirus spread through China, policymakers in the U.S. could not possibly discern the likelihood of a domestic outbreak. Prior experiences with SARS, Ebola, and swine flu indicated that the U.S. was resilient in the face of pandemics. In retrospect, it’s easy to identify why that wasn’t the case with the novel coronavirus, but it wasn’t at all clear at the time. The hard sciences are empirical, requiring careful observation of phenomena over long periods of time. Unlike “experts,” political leaders must act preemptively in the face of uncertainty. If policy is “data driven,” without data, there’s no one at the wheel.

Forceful preemptive measures to combat the coronavirus would have required an intuitive understanding of the strategic terrain — not only of the risks and rewards of various policies, but also of public sentiment. The German war scholar Carl von Clausewitz called it coup d’oeil: The ability to survey the landscape and render quick judgments, informed by both knowledge and intuition, to build a coherent whole “out of fragments visible to the human eye.” That the sciences reject intuition minimizes their utility when the moment calls for haste.

Along with coup d’oeil, Clausewitz identifies resolve as a key characteristic of effective wartime leadership. Closing borders and redirecting resources prior to a domestic outbreak would have invited charges of xenophobia and fearmongering, and many Americans would have considered the attendant economic harms unnecessary. Because the trajectory of the virus was uncertain, “the torments of doubt” overwhelmed leadership at home and abroad. But expertise does not provide resolve, “for we often see the cleverest people devoid of resolution.” While the academic must cultivate doubt in order to test his theories, the wartime leader must dispel doubt.

Trump himself is hardly an intellectual, but policy responses across the West — from the U.S. to the U.K. to France — have arguably been too academic. Waiting on precise data and expert judgment, the White House and state governors were caught flat-footed. Scientific researchers operate in the friendly environment of the lab, proving and disproving hypotheses definitively, and social scientists painstakingly superimpose scientific methods onto the humanities. The name “political science” implies that, like biology or physics, the question of human flourishing has fixed answers to be found by sifting through data. This empirical modality now dominates policymaking, leaving us defenseless against novel threats.

When a super-spreader is boarding a flight from Wuhan to New York, there’s no time to run a regression. As Clausewitz said of war, “in the course of action, circumstances press for immediate decision, and allow no time to look about for fresh data.”

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