It’s tough being a public expert. That’s because being a good public expert isn’t just about having good communications skills — i.e., about being an expert who feels comfortable in public. Being a good public expert is actually about your willingness to be uncomfortable in service of sharing your insights. To detect a signal in the data or the world, determine whether it is what Eric Topol calls “a ground truth”…and then to bring it to light despite opposition from your colleagues, supervisors, community and other loud grumblers.
There’s a bias to highlight. I am an optimist, always looking, when possible, for the brighter side when interpreting findings. But when the evidence is clear-cut, as it was for third shot (boosters) in August, I reluctantly made the call these would be important to protect the protected. That was met with considerable backlash from many public health experts, maintaining that 2 doses of vaccines were fully protective against symptomatic infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Randomized trials and large-scale effectiveness studies proved that to be wrong, but the signals were already quite evident months earlier. It’s a signal that I consider to be a ground truth. Besides vaccine manufacturers, who the hell wanted there to be a need for boosters after 6 months? And to lay it out, I have no relationship or financial conflicts with any pharmaceutical company or vaccine manufacturer.
It gets even tougher. Trusted public experts also step up and call out institutions, organizations and researchers (however redoubtable) for messing with the clarity of the signal.
Topol again: When the CDC announced in December it had shortened the recommended isolation period for people with COVID infections from 10 days to five while continuing to issue more shambolic data tracking and messaging, Topol patiently took it all apart with “The very bad day at the CDC,” curating and compressing into stark clarity the agency’s abiding problems to fulfill its most important functions.
Roger Pielke, Jr. is doing the same for the mess surrounding White House Scientific Integrity Task Force co-chair Jane Lubchenco’s failure to recuse herself from being peer-review assigning editor for a PNAS marine protected areas article whose conclusions were shaky, that was co-authored by her brother-in-law, whose publication was essential for the publication of another paper on which Lubchenco was an author, and whose policy recommendations she testified on before a US House committee. (Insert head spinning here.)
Takeaway: Public experts curate and compress the state of expertise for maximum utility, comprehension and impact.
They boost the evident signals as early as they’ve confirmed them — becoming an early warning system for citizens and decision makers.
And they call out the very bad days.
Not all at once, of course. That would be too tough.