Who Qualifies as an “Expert” And How Can We Decide Who Is Trustworthy?
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.
Trustworthy experts will direct you to others in their field who know more about particular topics, and will tend to be honest about what is and what isn't "in their lane."
Predictably, white male voices have been disproportionately amplified, and men are certainly over-represented in the category of those who use their connections to inappropriately claim expertise. Generally speaking, we are missing women, racial minorities, and global perspectives. This is not only important because it misrepresents who scientists are and reinforces outdated stereotypes that place white men in the Global North at the top of a credibility hierarchy. It also matters because it can promote bad science, and it passes over scientists who can lend nuance to the scientific discourse and give global perspectives on this quintessentially global crisis.
Also at work, in my opinion, are two biases within academia: the conflation of institutional prestige with individual expertise, and the bizarre hierarchy among scientists that attributes greater credibility to those in quantitative fields like physics. Regardless of mathematical expertise or institutional affiliation, lack of experience working with epidemiological data can lead to over-confidence in the deceptively simple mathematical models that we use to understand epidemics, as well as the inappropriate use of uncertain data to inform them. Prominent and vocal scientists from different quantitative fields have misapplied the methods of infectious disease epidemiology during the COVID-19 pandemic so far, creating enormous confusion among policymakers and the public. Early forecasts that predicted the epidemic would be over by now, for example, led to a sense that epidemiological models were all unreliable.
Meanwhile, legitimate scientific uncertainties and differences of opinion, as well as fundamentally different epidemic dynamics arising in diverse global contexts and in different demographic groups, appear in the press as an indistinguishable part of this general chaos. This leads many people to question whether the field has anything worthwhile to contribute, and muddies the facts about COVID-19 policies for reducing transmission that most experts agree on, like wearing masks and avoiding large indoor gatherings.
So how do we distinguish an expert from a charlatan? I believe a willingness to say "I don't know" and to openly describe uncertainties, nuances, and limitations of science are all good signs. Thoughtful engagement with questions and new ideas is also an indication of expertise, as opposed to arrogant bluster or a bullish insistence on a particular policy strategy regardless of context (which is almost always an attempt to hide a lack of depth of understanding). Trustworthy experts will direct you to others in their field who know more about particular topics, and will tend to be honest about what is and what isn't "in their lane." For example, some expertise is quite specific to a given subfield: epidemiologists who study non-infectious conditions or nutrition, for example, use different methods from those of infectious disease experts, because they generally don't need to account for the exponential growth that is inherent to a contagion process.
Academic scientists have a specific, technical contribution to make in containing the COVID-19 pandemic and in communicating research findings as they emerge. But the liminal space between scientists and the public is subject to the same undercurrents of sexism, racism, and opportunism that society and the academy have always suffered from. Although none of the proxies for expertise described above are fool-proof, they are at least indicative of integrity and humility—two traits the world is in dire need of at this moment in history.
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It is a mystery why humans manifest vast differences in lifespan, health, and susceptibility to infectious diseases. However, a team of international scientists has revealed that the capacity to resist or recover from infections and inflammation (a trait they call “immune resilience”) is one of the major contributors to these differences.
Immune resilience involves controlling inflammation and preserving or rapidly restoring immune activity at any age, explained Weijing He, a study co-author. He and his colleagues discovered that people with the highest level of immune resilience were more likely to live longer, resist infection and recurrence of skin cancer, and survive COVID and sepsis.
Measuring immune resilience
The researchers measured immune resilience in two ways. The first is based on the relative quantities of two types of immune cells, CD4+ T cells and CD8+ T cells. CD4+ T cells coordinate the immune system’s response to pathogens and are often used to measure immune health (with higher levels typically suggesting a stronger immune system). However, in 2021, the researchers found that a low level of CD8+ T cells (which are responsible for killing damaged or infected cells) is also an important indicator of immune health. In fact, patients with high levels of CD4+ T cells and low levels of CD8+ T cells during SARS-CoV-2 and HIV infection were the least likely to develop severe COVID and AIDS.
Individuals with optimal levels of immune resilience were more likely to live longer.
In the same 2021 study, the researchers identified a second measure of immune resilience that involves two gene expression signatures correlated with an infected person’s risk of death. One of the signatures was linked to a higher risk of death; it includes genes related to inflammation — an essential process for jumpstarting the immune system but one that can cause considerable damage if left unbridled. The other signature was linked to a greater chance of survival; it includes genes related to keeping inflammation in check. These genes help the immune system mount a balanced immune response during infection and taper down the response after the threat is gone. The researchers found that participants who expressed the optimal combination of genes lived longer.
Immune resilience and longevity
The researchers assessed levels of immune resilience in nearly 50,000 participants of different ages and with various types of challenges to their immune systems, including acute infections, chronic diseases, and cancers. Their evaluationdemonstrated that individuals with optimal levels of immune resilience were more likely to live longer, resist HIV and influenza infections, resist recurrence of skin cancer after kidney transplant, survive COVID infection, and survive sepsis.
However, a person’s immune resilience fluctuates all the time. Study participants who had optimal immune resilience before common symptomatic viral infections like a cold or the flu experienced a shift in their gene expression to poor immune resilience within 48 hours of symptom onset. As these people recovered from their infection, many gradually returned to the more favorable gene expression levels they had before. However, nearly 30% who once had optimal immune resilience did not fully regain that survival-associated profile by the end of the cold and flu season, even though they had recovered from their illness.
Intriguingly, some people who are 90+ years old still have optimal immune resilience, suggesting that these individuals’ immune systems have an exceptional capacity to control inflammation and rapidly restore proper immune balance.
This could suggest that the recovery phase varies among people and diseases. For example, young female sex workers who had many clients and did not use condoms — and thus were repeatedly exposed to sexually transmitted pathogens — had very low immune resilience. However, most of the sex workers who began reducing their exposure to sexually transmitted pathogens by using condoms and decreasing their number of sex partners experienced an improvement in immune resilience over the next 10 years.
Immune resilience and aging
The researchers found that the proportion of people with optimal immune resilience tended to be highest among the young and lowest among the elderly. The researchers suggest that, as people age, they are exposed to increasingly more health conditions (acute infections, chronic diseases, cancers, etc.) which challenge their immune systems to undergo a “respond-and-recover” cycle. During the response phase, CD8+ T cells and inflammatory gene expression increase, and during the recovery phase, they go back down.
However, over a lifetime of repeated challenges, the immune system is slower to recover, altering a person’s immune resilience. Intriguingly, some people who are 90+ years old still have optimal immune resilience, suggesting that these individuals’ immune systems have an exceptional capacity to control inflammation and rapidly restore proper immune balance despite the many respond-and-recover cycles that their immune systems have faced.
Public health ramifications could be significant. Immune cell and gene expression profile assessments are relatively simple to conduct, and being able to determine a person’s immune resilience can help identify whether someone is at greater risk for developing diseases, how they will respond to treatment, and whether, as well as to what extent, they will recover.
In November 2021, Mickayla Wininger’s then one-month-old son, Malcolm, endured a terrifying bout with RSV, the respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus—a common ailment that affects all age groups. Most people recover from mild, cold-like symptoms in a week or two, but RSV can be life-threatening in others, particularly infants.
Wininger, who lives in southern Illinois, was dressing Malcolm for bed when she noticed what seemed to be a minor irregularity with this breathing. She and her fiancé, Gavin McCullough, planned to take him to the hospital the next day. The matter became urgent when, in the morning, the boy’s breathing appeared to have stopped.
After they dialed 911, Malcolm started breathing again, but he ended up being hospitalized three times for RSV and defects in his heart. Eventually, he recovered fully from RSV, but “it was our worst nightmare coming to life,” Wininger recalled.
It’s a scenario that the federal government is taking steps to prevent. In July, the Food and Drug Administration approved a single-dose, long-acting injection to protect babies and toddlers. The injection, called Beyfortus, or nirsevimab, became available this October. It reduces the incidence of RSV in pre-term babies and other infants for their first RSV season. Children at highest risk for severe RSV are those who were born prematurely and have either chronic lung disease of prematurity or congenital heart disease. In those cases, RSV can progress to lower respiratory tract diseases such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis, or swelling of the lung’s small airway passages.
Each year, RSV is responsible for 2.1 million outpatient visits among children younger than five-years-old, 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations in this age group, and between 100 and 300 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmitted through close contact with an infected person, the virus circulates on a seasonal basis in most regions of the country, typically emerging in the fall and peaking in the winter.
In August, however, the CDC issued a health advisory on a late-summer surge in severe cases of RSV among young children in Florida and Georgia. The agency predicts "increased RSV activity spreading north and west over the following two to three months.”
Infants are generally more susceptible to RSV than older people because their airways are very small, and their mechanisms to clear these passages are underdeveloped. RSV also causes mucus production and inflammation, which is more of a problem when the airway is smaller, said Jennifer Duchon, an associate professor of newborn medicine and pediatrics in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
In 2021 and 2022, RSV cases spiked, sending many to emergency departments. “RSV can cause serious disease in infants and some children and results in a large number of emergency department and physician office visits each year,” John Farley, director of the Office of Infectious Diseases in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a news release announcing the approval of the RSV drug. The decision “addresses the great need for products to help reduce the impact of RSV disease on children, families and the health care system.”
Sean O’Leary, chair of the committee on infectious diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that “we’ve never had a product like this for routine use in children, so this is very exciting news.” It is recommended for all kids under eight months old for their first RSV season. “I would encourage nirsevimab for all eligible children when it becomes available,” O’Leary said.
For those children at elevated risk of severe RSV and between the ages of 8 and 19 months, the CDC recommends one dose in their second RSV season.
The drug will be “really helpful to keep babies healthy and out of the hospital,” said O’Leary, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus/Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver.
An antiviral drug called Synagis (palivizumab) has been an option to prevent serious RSV illness in high-risk infants since it was approved by the FDA in 1998. The injection must be given monthly during RSV season. However, its use is limited to “certain children considered at high risk for complications, does not help cure or treat children already suffering from serious RSV disease, and cannot prevent RSV infection,” according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Until the approval this summer of the new monoclonal antibody, nirsevimab, there wasn’t a reliable method to prevent infection in most healthy infants.
Both nirsevimab and palivizumab are monoclonal antibodies that act against RSV. Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful pathogens such as viruses. A single intramuscular injection of nirsevimab preceding or during RSV season may provide protection.
The strategy with the new monoclonal antibody is “to extend protection to healthy infants who nonetheless are at risk because of their age, as well as infants with additional medical risk factors,” said Philippa Gordon, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist in Brooklyn, New York, and medical adviser to Park Slope Parents, an online community support group.
No specific preventive measure is needed for older and healthier kids because they will develop active immunity, which is more durable. Meanwhile, older adults, who are also vulnerable to RSV, can receive one of two new vaccines. So can pregnant women, who pass on immunity to the fetus, Gordon said.
Until the approval this summer of the new monoclonal antibody, nirsevimab, there wasn’t a reliable method to prevent infection in most healthy infants, “nor is there any treatment other than giving oxygen or supportive care,” said Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
As with any virus, washing hands frequently and keeping infants and children away from sick people are the best defenses, Duchon said. This approach isn’t foolproof because viruses can run rampant in daycare centers, schools and parents’ workplaces, she added.
Mickayla Wininger, Malcolm’s mother, insists that family and friends wear masks, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer when they’re around her daughter and two sons. She doesn’t allow them to kiss or touch the children. Some people take it personally, but she would rather be safe than sorry.
Wininger recalls the severe anxiety caused by Malcolm's ordeal with RSV. After returning with her infant from his hospital stays, she was terrified to go to sleep. “My fiancé and I would trade shifts, so that someone was watching over our son 24 hours a day,” she said. “I was doing a night shift, so I would take caffeine pills to try and keep myself awake and would end up crashing early hours in the morning and wake up frantically thinking something happened to my son.”
Two years later, her anxiety has become more manageable, and Malcolm is doing well. “He is thriving now,” Wininger said. He recently had his second birthday and "is just the spunkiest boy you will ever meet. He looked death straight in the eyes and fought to be here today.”