Who Qualifies as an “Expert” And How Can We Decide Who Is Trustworthy?

Who Qualifies as an “Expert” And How Can We Decide Who Is Trustworthy?

Discerning a real expert from a charlatan is crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

Expertise is a slippery concept. Who has it, who claims it, and who attributes or yields it to whom is a culturally specific, sociological process. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed a remarkable emergence of legitimate and not-so-legitimate scientists publicly claiming or being attributed to have academic expertise in precisely my field: infectious disease epidemiology. From any vantage point, it is clear that charlatans abound out there, garnering TV coverage and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers based on loud opinions despite flimsy credentials. What is more interesting as an insider is the gradient of expertise beyond these obvious fakers.

A person's expertise is not a fixed attribute; it is a hierarchical trait defined relative to others. Despite my protestations, I am the go-to expert on every aspect of the pandemic to my family. To a reporter, I might do my best to answer a question about the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, noting that I'm not an immunologist. Among other academic scientists, my expertise is more well-defined as a subfield of epidemiology, and within that as a particular area within infectious disease epidemiology. There's a fractal quality to it; as you zoom in on a particular subject, a differentiation of expertise emerges among scientists who, from farther out, appear to be interchangeable.

We all have our scientific domain and are less knowledgeable outside it, of course, and we are often asked to comment on a broad range of topics. But many scientists without a track record in the field have become favorites among university administrators, senior faculty in unrelated fields, policymakers, and science journalists, using institutional prestige or social connections to promote themselves. This phenomenon leads to a distorted representation of science—and of academic scientists—in the public realm.

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Caroline Buckee
Dr. Caroline Buckee is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Associate Director of the Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is a co-founder of the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network, set up to support the use of population behavior data to guide policy makers in their response to the pandemic. Her other work is focused on understanding the mechanisms driving the spread of infectious diseases that impact the most vulnerable populations worldwide, particularly malaria. Before coming to Harvard, Dr. Buckee completed a D.Phil. at the University of Oxford, and Omidyar and Wellcome Trust fellowships at the Santa Fe Institute and the Kenya Medical Research Institute, respectively, where she analyzed malaria parasite evolution and epidemiology. Dr. Buckee’s group uses a range of mathematical models, experimental and genomic data, and “Big Data” from mobile phones and satellites to understand how human pathogens spread and may be controlled.
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How Roadside Safety Signs Backfire—and Why Policymakers Don’t Notice

Interventions in health and safety often yield results that are the opposite of what policymakers were hoping for. Officials can take a science-based approach by measuring what really works instead of relying on gut intuitions.

You are driving along the highway and see an electronic sign that reads: “3,238 traffic deaths this year.” Do you think this reminder of roadside mortality would change how you drive? According to a recent, peer-reviewed study in Science, seeing that sign would make you more likely to crash. That’s ironic, given that the sign’s creators assumed it would make you safer.

The study, led by a pair of economists at the University of Toronto and University of Minnesota, examined seven years of traffic accident data from 880 electric highway sign locations in Texas, which experienced 4,480 fatalities in 2021. For one week of each month, the Texas Department of Transportation posts the latest fatality messages on signs along select traffic corridors as part of a safety campaign. Their logic is simple: Tell people to drive with care by reminding them of the dangers on the road.

But when the researchers looked at the data, they found that the number of crashes increased by 1.52 percent within three miles of these signs when compared with the same locations during the same month in previous years when signs did not show fatality information. That impact is similar to raising the speed limit by four miles or decreasing the number of highway troopers by 10 percent.

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Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally recognized thought leader on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic and Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. He co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge project.
Why we should put insects on the menu

Insects for sale at a market in Cambodia.

David Waltner-Toews

I walked through the Dong Makkhai forest-products market, just outside of Vientiane, the laid-back capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic or Lao PDR. Piled on rough display tables were varieties of six-legged wildlife–grasshoppers, small white crickets, house crickets, mole crickets, wasps, wasp eggs and larvae, dragonflies, and dung beetles. Some were roasted or fried, but in a few cases, still alive and scrabbling at the bottom of deep plastic bowls. I crunched on some fried crickets and larvae.

One stall offered Giant Asian hornets, both babies and adults. I suppressed my inner squirm and, in the interests of world food security and equity, accepted an offer of the soft, velvety larva; they were smooth on the tongue and of a pleasantly cool, buttery-custard consistency. Because the seller had already given me a free sample, I felt obliged to buy a chunk of the nest with larvae and some dead adults, which the seller mixed with kaffir lime leaves.

The year was 2016 and I was in Lao PDR because Veterinarians without Borders/Vétérinaires sans Frontières-Canada had initiated a project on small-scale cricket farming. The intent was to organize and encourage rural women to grow crickets as a source of supplementary protein and sell them at the market for cash. As a veterinary epidemiologist, I had been trained to exterminate disease spreading insects—Lyme disease-carrying ticks, kissing bugs that carry American Sleeping Sickness and mosquitoes carrying malaria, West Nile and Zika. Now, as part of a global wave promoting insects as a sustainable food source, I was being asked to view arthropods as micro-livestock, and devise management methods to keep them alive and healthy. It was a bit of a mind-bender.

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David Waltner-Toews
David Waltner-Toews is a veterinary epidemiologist and author of more than twenty books of poetry, fiction, and science. His most recent books are On Pandemics: deadly diseases from bubonic plague to coronavirus (Greystone Books, 2020); Eat the Beetles: an exploration into our conflicted relationship with insects (ECW Press, 2017) and The Origin of Feces: what excrement tells us about evolution, ecology and a sustainable society (ECW Press, 2013).