How researchers get heard
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Cowardice, Expertise & Public Expertise

Research-based experts complain about journalists a lot — about how journalists misquote them, get the story wrong, write bad headlines, use all the information the experts gave them without attribution, and frame narratives about research in undesirable ways.

Public research-based experts agree with all that criticism. They might even indulge in it themselves. But they do so knowing none of the criticism matters and none of it will change anything about the power journalism holds in their relationship. That’s why public experts work the channels they own to get their side of the conversation understood — publicly.

So: Politico’s Joanne Kenen reports that a rising number of public health experts are alarmed over the outsized influence of New York Times’ opinion writer David Leonhardt and his chronically optimistic stance on where the pandemic goes next.

Let’s put a number on Leonhardt’s “outsized influence”: five million X five days a week. “Five million” is the number of Times’ subscribers who get Leonhardt’s latest “The Morning Newsletter” via email every weekday morning. An avid one of those five million subscribers? Joe Biden, according to Kenen.

The experts Kenen talked to are upset with Leonhardt because he’s been arguing for at least a year now that a) COVID looks almost over and b) vaccinated people should take precautions but the precautions aren’t all that magical and the odds are drastically in your favor if you want to return to a normal life now. The experts say Leonhardt cherry-picks facts and data and equates his own risk with everyone else’s. Some of the experts wrote a letter to the Times calling Leonhardt’s reporting “irresponsible and dangerous.”

No one disputes that Leonhardt has been plenty wrong about many aspects of COVID — not even Leonhardt. He wrote a whole column last month about the big mistakes he made in 2021 and the importance of epistemic humility in the face of the pandemic. But he followed that column up by declaring that daily deaths from the Omicron variant were unlikely to approach the records set in the biggest Delta wave. (They soon did.)

Yet Kenen was only able to find three of the complaining experts who were “willing to go on the record about an enormously influential journalist”:

Other public health experts Nightly interviewed — some of whom are sources for New York Times health journalists of have media gigs of their own — didn’t want to be quoted, or said they were too busy taking care of patients, ciao. One well-known research scientist, who is part of this critical conversation but who admires Leonhardt overall, wouldn’t even praise him on the record.

This is the cowardice of plugged-in, connected expertise. Everyone wants to change things; no one wants their thing to be changed. Kenen reports she wasn’t even allowed to see the full list of signatories to that expert letter to the Times.

I think about how the conversation on waning immunity from two vaccine shots and the need for boosters turned last year, well after the evidence was in — how Eric Topol, among other public experts, started banging that drum on Twitter and in op-eds when Leonhardt and the CDC continued to get boosters very wrong deep into the autumn.

Topol didn’t stay silent when he saw caution and provincialism endangering the public. He didn’t think about his pandemic-fueled media gigs and connections to journalists. He just did what public experts do.