What does Covid-19 mean for expertise? The case of Tomas Pueyo

by Warren Pearce, iHuman

Notebook and glasses

The experts are back in fashion. So the story went during the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis as UK ministers’ disparaging of experts was brought to an end by a crisis whose reality would defy the attempts of populists to spin and deny. Science was restored to its rightful place at the heart of government decision-making, with the UK’s top scientists flanking the Prime Minister in daily briefings to the nation that provided the latest analysis of the unfolding epidemic. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), containing multiple FRS, OBEs, FMedSci and so on, achieved national prominence. No place here for the unruly and uninformed trolls and bots of social media platforms that had so regularly cast doubt onto scientific expertise in the past. The only way to get through this crisis would be with the experts not quite in the driving seat (after, all scientists advise and politicians decide), but at least climbing out of the boot and getting to hold the map again. That was the story anyway, and a comforting one at that…

…yet the oak-panelled press conferences of 11 Downing St would only go so far to reset the UK’s epistemic balance. In early March, rumblings began to emerge on social media about the UK government’s strategy, and its lethargic approach to introducing policies for the suppression of the virus. But this discontent did not split down party political lines. For example, some politically progressive members of the science communication community defended the Conservative government’s science-led strategy. Mindful, perhaps, of politically-motivated attempts to discredit science in the past, they adopted a position echoing that of Oreskes and Conway’s hugely influential book Merchants of Doubt: “we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative” (p.272). 

A stunning intervention

This turned out to be an unsustainable position. On March 10th, the dissenting, disparate murmurs coagulated in a spectacular fashion, with the publication of the Medium post Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now, by Tomas Pueyo. On the face of it, the post appeared an unpromising addition to attention-sapping digital platforms: described as a 27-minute read, it ran to over 6000 words and contained 23 charts. What’s more Pueyo made no claims to special expertise or relevant credentials, and a glance at his Medium profile showed no previous interest in epidemiology, but rather a range of posts with titles such as What the Rise of Skywalker Can Teach About Storytelling and What I Learned Building a Horoscope That Blew Up on Facebook. This all seemed like a poor fit for the new age of expert deference that we were supposed to be experiencing, but, according to an update by Pueyo, the article received a stunning 40 million views in the first nine days since publication and has been translated into over 40 languages.  

The post is notable for going beyond data and describing trends to make a strong, normative argument for countries moving rapidly to lockdown policies, as well as providing advice to business leaders. Pueyo combines data, emotion and urgency, with charts taken from a range of credible sources placed alongside evocative (but unverified) descriptions from social media of the havoc being wrought in Chinese and Italian hospitals. He draws on famous historical examples of previous epidemic interventions in Philadelphia and St. Louis before the final section entitled “The Cost of Waiting” where he describes his own modelling “that resembles loosely Hubei”. Here, Pueyo makes his key argument, predicting that a one-day delay in imposing lockdown would lead to a 40% increase in the cumulative number of cases, so urging governments to implement stringent lockdowns as quickly as possible. While the post gained global attention, the UK context was particularly pertinent, coming a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected the introduction of more stringent interventions, stating that “the best thing we can all do is wash our hands for 20 seconds with soap and water”.

From the blogosphere to national TV

On March 12th, three days after the publication of Pueyo’s post, something unusual happened. As part of a one-hour Channel 4 News programme, Coronavirus Special: Are We Doing Enough?, Pueyo was invited to appear alongside esteemed epidemiologist and SAGE member John Edmunds to discuss predicted cases and policy implications for the UK. Pueyo was introduced by presenter Matt Frei as a “Silicon Valley executive and writer … who is not a scientist but whose detailed modelling of the virus’s spread has set the internet alight with its stark warnings about the rate of infection”. While one might quibble with the notion that Pueyo’s modelling was detailed (particularly as he did not publish the methods and code he used in his post), the introduction did place Pueyo in his proper context, and contrasted him with Edmunds’ undoubted professional credentials.

The segment is fascinating for bringing established expertise into such close proximity with the blogosphere on national television. In 2013, Stephen Turner pithily summarised the blogosphere as “loathed and feared by the press, expert-opinion makers and representatives of authority generally”. While Channel 4 News’s invitation to Pueyo might signal a softening of the press’s view, Edmunds certainly did not come across as Pueyo’s number-one fan during the interview. While the pair did agree on some issues, the most memorable parts came with Pueyo’s reactions as Edmunds was speaking, shaking his head vigorously and, as Edmunds talked about herd immunity, placing his hands over his face in horror. Viewers found themselves a long way from the meeting rooms of Whitehall, and instead in a strange new world where the unruly rough and tumble of internet epistemology emerged onto the mainstream news. Indeed, some of Pueyo’s reactions resembling real-life emojis on the monitor positioned between Frei and Edmunds. 

Which experts to trust?

Online reaction to the interview at the time can be split into two broad camps. First, many questioned why Pueyo was invited onto the programme at all. Twitter has an increasingly important role as a site of media critique, and the Channel 4 segment fell squarely in the sights of those who were welcoming the post-Brexit return of experts. This is unsurprising, particularly in the UK where accredited expertise plays a very important part in decision-making and there is not the strong tradition of distrust in experts seen in the US. Yet, there was also a second group of reactions, who were more supportive of Pueyo and critical of Edmunds. Some of this was based around scepticism and worry about the idea of herd immunity, which Edmunds mentions near the start of the interview. I do not have space to dig into this issue fully here, except to note that while some online criticisms of a herd immunity ‘strategy’ have been misleading, science journalist Ed Yong has indeed described the government’s communication of the issue as a “debacle”. Perhaps a clue for the miscommunication can be found in this interview, in which Edmunds talks about achieving herd immunity. While subsequent statements by SAGE members (including Edmunds) suggest that this was not the objective of government policy, the use of the word ‘achieve’ (OED definition: to successfully bring about or reach (a desired objective or result) by effort, skill, or courage) was enough to prompt some commenters to think that, in the absence of a vaccine, the government was actively seeking to get as many people infected as quickly as possible.

Linked to these concerns about herd immunity were a broader set of criticisms regarding emotion and care. A theme here is that the government’s science advisers are becoming closely associated with the government itself. This is notable as science advisers pride themselves on providing independent advice, apparently free from political concerns. However, as Melanie Smallman has argued, the notion that advisers can separate science and politics is bogus, and here we see that at least some members of the public seemed to agree. Some commenters also found the government’s science-led strategy as uncaring, in contrast with Pueyo’s emotional interventions. This exposes something of a double-edged sword for expertise: that the detachment and objectivity that are the hallmarks of science may not always serve experts well in public opinion. In the weeks that have passed, Pueyo has written a number of successful follow-up posts followed up with some other posts, and made a few more media appearances, but none with the impact of that first week. Edmunds appeared again on Channel 4 News a few weeks later, but in a solo interview (Pueyo was not invited back). Some commentators pointed out that Pueyo had been proved correct, and while the numbers are not identical, it has to be said that the broad tenor of his argument has been proved correct, in that science advisers to government are now saying that the “UK lockdown delay cost a lot of lives”.

Are digital platforms changing expertise?

Beyond the current public anger over the UK’s handling of Covid-19, what does all this mean for the relationship between experts and society? The Channel 4 News interview was highly unusual; normally, esteemed experts can keep themselves above the fray of the blogosphere and social media platforms. And when one reaches a certain level of fame, one can certainly understand the desire to mute their mentions. However, as Turner describes, the blogosphere does perform a vital task in qualifying the claims of accredited experts. Perhaps part of Pueyo’s success was the absence of detailed evidence or reasoning to support the claims of the UK government, and it is notable that Pueyo did not seek to criticise specific expert claims as is generally the case in the blogosphere. Rather, he made his own passionate and effective argument that observers could not help but notice stood in stark contrast with the stories from government experts.

It should go without saying that the lesson to be learned from this episode is not that inexperienced bloggers are equal to experts who have devoted their lives to understanding a particular issue. Not every science blogger is a nascent Galileo in possession of scientific truth but persecuted by the establishment. However, what the Pueyo episode does show is that experts and their public defenders are sometimes too hasty in rejecting perspectives that come from beyond that core of knowledge. When the scientists involved are also closely involved with the formulation of advice to government, then perhaps the temptation to reject or ignore criticism becomes too great. Oreskes and Conway remain correct in one sense, that we have no choice but to trust the experts in matters of science. It’s just that maybe we need more inclusive ways of deciding who those experts are. 

Comments? Please email me on warren.pearce@sheffield.ac.uk or tweet me @WarrenPearce

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