Searching for Justified Trust in Science Experts

Science experts are often not wealthy; nor can they exercise raw power over others. However, thanks to their education, they do have a high status in society, in terms of prestige and influence. People listen tot them. 

How then can the "average citizen" criticize these experts? After all, you do not have titles like "PhD in virology". And if you do critize such experts, you run the risk of being labeled a conspiracy theorist, science denier, or some irrational, unschooled ideologue. 

As an "average citizen" it is therefore difficult to defend a position that avoids both blind trust and equally thoughtless mistrust.

How can we avoid both naiveté and paranoia?

This double post starts with the public debate and gives a brief scientific overview. In the second half, I propose how we should currently trust expert advice (as noble lies), and how experts could be more trustworthy in the future (with a stronger deontology).

The Belgian public debate hesitates between trust and mistrust

The past week has (finally) seen some criticism of scientific experts, but it does not yet seem to be properly formulated.

Especially the figure Marc Van Ranst — one of the virologists advising the government and making multiple media appearances per day — is becoming increasingly controversial. After admitting to a widely watched news program that discouraging mouth masks was a "strategy", he is now being attacked by politicians on the right. This has led to defenses by left-wing politicians, who draw attention to the fact that figures like Van Ranst help “disprove rumors and conspiracy theories”. Increasingly, probably to counteract skepticism, we see strange pieces that serve little other purpose that to tout the communication skills of experts. 

A Belgian national newspaper saw a historian defend a Foucauldian line of thought: science can lead to control and a surveillance state. It received a response defending a logical positivist line of thought, and basically accusing the historian of science-denial. 

Let us hold some statements against the light of scientific research. 

Three statements that were not strictly scientific

1. "Covid-19 is comparable to the flu"

  • Facts. See previous post.

  • Conclusion. No one could have known with certainty that a pandemic would erupt, not only because of the incomplete data, but also because of the great uncertainties associated with epidemiological models. And yet, a totally confident belief that Covid-19 was similar to the flu had been inappropriate for weeks. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, also criticized how some experts in Johnson's cabinet hide behind the claim that "science has changed".

  • Why was the statement made anyway? In my opinion, the best explanation is that no one wants to be labeled as a doomsday prophet. More on this later.

2. "Mouth masks are useless" (Literally claimed here)

  • Fact 1. Studies have been conducted in the Health and Safety Laboratory (UK) showing that surgical masks reduce the number of (influenza) virus particles that come through, on average, by a factor of 6.

  • Fact 2.Experts in many Asian countries, who have demonstrable experience due to past SARS and MERS epidemics, are encourage people to wear masks. (Why don’t we assume that they might know something we do not? Why should we only have trust in the national experts, and not in the international experts?)

  • Conclusion. Surgical masks are not useless, and help to reduce both the chance of infection and the chance of serious infection.

  • Why was the statement made anyway? Most likely because of the shortage among medical staff, who exposed to much larger amounts of virus, and who need it much more than others. This was the motivation in Belgiumand other countries such as the U.S. where initially similar advice was given.

3. "As long as you keep a distance of 1.5m from others, you have nothing to worry about."

  • Fact 1.This study showed how aerosol-form SARS-CoV-2 allows air to linger for at least 3 hours. See graph. However, the study artificially produced relatively small drops using a nebulizer. Larger drops do not remain in the air very long. So what happens when we sneeze or cough? Unclear. 

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Fact 2This study showed how SARS-CoV-2 does not linger in the air in (ventilated) hospital rooms with Covid patients. Another study found high concentrations on the ventilators. So what if there is no ventilation: how long does the virus linger in the air?  Unknown.

Fact 3: When sneezing, water droplets can be propelled for up to 8m.

Conclusion. Keeping a distance of 1.5m does not mean that you are "without risk". It lowers the risk, but how low is the risk? If someone sneezes in your direction, 1.5m is insufficient anyway. But what if you come to a place where 5-min was previously an infected person? The chance is "fairly" low that you will be infected. But how low? Nobody knows …

Why was the statement made anyway? Most likely because many people get confused between “not without risk” and “risky”, and would get unduly worried (getting into the car is never “without risk”, yet we do it all the time anyway). This would lead to other consequences that would be negative for public health, such as people avoids going outside for physical activity. 

Experts' statements are often noble lies

Public advice always involves simplifying the scientific state of the art. It would not be appreciated by the media or law enforcement if exhaustive scientific details and degrees of probability were to be presented.

However, the examples above go beyond mere simplification. The scientists are actively putting a spin on the truth. That is why I would like to propose that we should assume that expert statements are noble lies.

The ‘noble lie’ played an important role in Plato’s ideal state. According to Plato, the unalloyed truth was for the leaders of the state, who were also the most excellent people or aristos (hence: the "aristocracy"). The people needed a myth in order to preserve social harmony.

Similarly, the current statements by scientific experts are based on significant scientific competence AS WELL AS the intention to further public health. In formula: expert advice = science + well-intended behavioral manipulation.

So if when someone like Van Ranst stated "Covid is similar to the flu," this was based on a calculation based on scientific and non-scientific considerations. However, just because that calculation includes non-scientific considerations doesn’t mean it is necessarily suspicious. 

It is rather confronting to realise this, since experts publicly demand trust in virtue of their expertise — not in virtue of their good intentions. So when these same experts then admit at a later date that their scientific-sounding statements were actually a ‘strategy’, this is experienced as deceit by many.

In this regard I have a double suggestion: while expert advice could be more truthful, yet it should not be quite judged to be deceit. Our preference should be for a more honest, less paternalistic model of communication; yet, it is also important to recognise that the intentions are ‘noble’ and that sometimes it was not even a conscious decision to go down the path of a noble lie.

Do the media and politicians demand noble lies?

De Standaard once shadowed Marc Van Ranst for a day, and that allowed us a glimpse into his current position in society. Apparently, on an average day, Van Ranst has phone calls with numerous politicians and journalists. He decides whether stranded tourists in Tenerife "fit to fly", and so has power over their immediate future. Experts do not always have power, but it is clear that a figure like Van Ranst has built up ties with powerful figures in the Belgian scene.

It is very human not to want to hurt or disappoint your friends and/or acquaintances. Conversely, we are harshest towards people we don't know. That is why you see, for example in the figure here, that Islamaphobia is more common in countries with few Muslims. 

The networks of scientific experts can help us understand why experts might make paternalistic-seeming decisions without consciously intending them to be in that way. Consider the decision to downplay Covid-19 for so long. (I’m assuming here that they were not negligent and kept up to date with the latest studies in the top medical journals.) Suppose they had said in February “we have to go in lockdown,” not only would few would have believed them, but the politicians and journalists in their network would not have been happy with such a statement, and thus the experts would have lost authority and status.

It is dangerous to be a "prophet" and to swim against the tide by yourself. If you are wrong, you will be severely punished. And if you’re right, you’re an eccentric genius or independent thinker – and people usually don’t want such figures in positions of leadership. It is therefore safer to sense where the majority opinion is headed and to follow these trends.

How science experts could be more trustworthy

Can we do better? Yes, but I would like to emphasize that things could be a lot worse. Science experts, even with their current communication ethics, are far preferable to the alternatives of populist politicians and superstitious beliefs. For example, you have statements like “I wouldn't feel like Covid-19 because of my athletic past (Bolsonaro, President Brazil)”, and rumors like drinking cow urine would help (India).

In general, it doesn't seem like a good idea for politicians to get involved in scientifically informed public advice: when Trump promoted anti-malaria drugs that use chloroquine, an American couple took it a bit too literally and drank a cleaning additive containing chloroquine, with fatal consequences.

We cannot live without experts. That means that the path forward lies in a more trustworthy communication by experts. In the end, the average citizen listens to a scientific expert because of their scientific expertise, and not because of their insight into policy. And if the expert does venture into policy – which is often unavoidable – it should be made explicit.

Keeping policy and science separate is possible without compromising the simplicity and clarity of advice. With regard to mouth masks, one could have communicated: "masks do work, but our medical personnel – a bit like the firemen in Chernobyl - need protection more." About keeping distance: “Since we still don’t whether small amounts of virus can remain airborne, it is important to keep as much distance as possible. At the very least 1.5m.”

It would also be in the interest of experts and policymakers to improve perceptions of trustworthiness. Opaquely blending policy and science gives leeway to those who believe dystopian motives are driving science experts. Some may start to think: if they aren't even honest about mouth masks, can we trust experts in general?

Ultimately, there should be some code of conduct or deontology guiding scientific experts. Public advice is guided by two different service ideals: to honestly represent the scientific state of art (what we know and what we do not know), and to further public health. These services sometimes conflict, and thus often a trade-off needs to be made. Article number one in the relevant code of conduct would be: communicate honestly about how you have interpreted the science, and about which lessons you have drawn for public health.

The reasoning process underlying public advice needs not only be done more transparently, but in many cases also simply better. During a pandemic experts are chosen with a competence in virology and/or epidemiology; however, the competence to make complex ethical-scientific deliberations is also important. Only by doing this would experts be justified in demanding trust.

In the meantime we should be somewhat wary of public advice: it often appears as a straightforwardly scientific statement, but often isn’t. This does not mean it should be distrusted by default, because it is put forward by well-meaning & competent scientists.