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Experts, the BLM Protests & COVID-19

Yascha Mounk writes this morning in The Atlantic that “The Virus Will Win.” A sobering read and — with 23 U.S. states showing increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, just as much of the country moves into full-throated reopening — difficult to counter:

When the first wave of COVID-19 was threatening to overwhelm the medical system, back in March, the public’s fear and uncertainty were far more intense than they are now. So was the reason to hope that some magic bullet might rescue us from the worst ravages of the disease.

At this point, such hopes look unrealistic. After months of intense research, an effective treatment for COVID-19 still does not exist. A vaccine is, even if we get lucky, many months away from deployment. Because the virus is spreading especially rapidly in parts of the Southern Hemisphere, from Latin America to Africa, heat is clearly no impediment to its dissemination.

Perhaps most important, it is now difficult to imagine that anybody could muster the political will to impose a full-scale lockdown for a second time. As one poll in Pennsylvania found, nearly nine out of 10 Republicans trusted “the information you hear about coronavirus from medical experts” back in April. Now just about one in three does. With public opinion more polarized than it was a few months ago, and the presidential election looming, any attempt to deal with a resurgence of the virus is likely to be even more haphazard, contentious, and ineffective than it was the first time around.

So how did medical experts lose the trust of nearly 60% of Pennsylvania Republicans in under two months? Mounk names a “partial list of individuals and institutions who, however central or peripheral their contribution to the ultimate outcome, have helped to get us into this mess.” On his list:

If the virus wins, it may also be because Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds as Floyd was pleading for his life, setting off protests that—as righteous as they are—could well result in mass infections.

If the virus wins, it may also be because 1,200 public-health experts obfuscated the mortal risk that these mass protests would pose to the most vulnerable among us by declaring not only (as would be reasonable) that they supported them as citizens, but also (which is highly implausible) that they had determined, as scientists, that they would actively serve “the national public health.”

The latter paragraph might seem weird if you haven’t been following the heated debate over these expert declarations of support for the protests, many of which did not express caution over the safety of the protests or guidance as to how best to participate safely. How could the scattered, mostly Twitter-based declarations of “1,200 public-health experts” — many of which were scientists and doctors, as opposed to public health officials — “obfuscate the mortal risk that these mass protests would pose” with such widespread impact that millions felt sanctioned to attend crowded, shout-and song-filled protests where many people were not wearing a mask — and for which police responses often also increased the risk of infections?

Dunno. Data are unavailable: on the infection risks of protests, on the ultimate impact of the protests themselves on infection rates, and on the impact of the expert opinions on protest participation or on nonprotesters’ willingness to forego previous advice. And data will probably remain unavailable, without an unimaginably rapid deployment of testing and contact tracing.

The debate is not about public health. It’s about what it means to be an expert in a crisis — about our expectations for how experts should behave, and whether we see them anymore as experts (or even they themselves see themselves as experts) when they say something that contradicts our expectations for the role of expert.

In his Five Modes of Science Engagement, Roger Pielke Jr. talks first about four engagement roles for scientists (Pure Scientist, Science Arbiter, Issue Advocate and Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives). Any of these, Pielke says, is a legitimate function, as long as the expert is up front about the mode they are inhabiting. Which is why Pielke goes on to outline the fifth role: Stealth Issue Advocate:

This role is characterized by the expert who seeks to hide his/her [sic] advocacy behind a facade of science, either pure scientist or science arbiter. This role seeks to swim in a sea of politics without getting wet. It is the fastest route to pathologically politicizing science. It is also what gives scientists as advocates a bad name.

Notice Pielke says “pathologically politicizing science.” Science is always already politicized to some extent because the world is politicized. What critics of the 1,200 experts were worried about wasn’t politicization, but the apparent sudden and unexplained move of these experts from “science arbiters” to “issue advocates,” because (in their calculations) that unexplained shift ran the risk of those experts’ advice being retroactively seen as “stealth issue advocacy” by people such as those 60% of Pennsylvania Republicans. The following Twitter exchange sums up this confusion on both parties:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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RandomHeterodoxGuy (a self-declared libertarian math professor) thinks public health officials (and, presumably, public health experts) should always be Science Arbiters. Carl T. Bergstrom (an epidemiologist who has been one of the most useful COVID-19 Twitter resources since the pandemic began, and who instantly endorsed the BLM protests without caution about what infection dangers they might have posed) thinks he can seamlessly flow between “Issue Advocate” and “Science Arbiter” without having to explain which role he’s inhabiting — which happens a lot with experts on Twitter because it encourages a mashup of professional and personal in order to build and solidify one’s social graph.

Both RandomHeterodoxGuy and Carl T. Bergstrom are wrong about their roles in ways that represent why COVID-19 and the virus combined with structural racism represent the most dangerous challenges for scientific credibility in our lifetimes.

In “Five Modes of Science Engagement,” Pielke makes a couple of other points relevant to what’s happening now:

  • In highly politicized environments like this one, Science Arbiters and Honest Broker are roles best played by committees and institutions well connected to policymakers. For a variety of horrible reasons this institutionalization of Science Arbiter hasn’t happened — leaving the field to individual experts, who start out as Arbiters and eventually slide to Issue Advocacy, resulting in a lot of confusion and alienation.
  • Experts need to be informed about engagement before engaging. You need to understand how what you’re saying will be read by all audiences if you want to stay effective for all those audiences. “It does no good to explain how you wish the world worked or how it should work as an excuse for not understanding real-world political context,” Pielke writes. Trying to rapidly or dismissively navigate the nuances of moving from “those lockdown protests were dangerous” to “these BLM protests are essential” without acknowledging that how you got from A to B might confuse many people opens you to the charge of always having been a Stealth Advocate.

Black Lives Matter. I support and am in awe of the protesters — they have been exquisitely effective at forcing action and introspection and revealing the dust in the air. They have inspired me to recommit to anti-racism in my personal life and my business. (To help me with a new contract, I want to hire an African-American science communicator/marketer. Recommendations welcome.)

As an immunocompromised person fearful of infection, I’m concerned about the risks to which the protests might expose both participants and, if those participants become infected, their networks. I am much more concerned about the risks of reopening in an uncoordinated and non-science-based cavalcade of ways across the country, but I am concerned about the infection consequences of the protests.

I wish more public health experts had, in passionately endorsing the goals of the protests, also uniformly endorsed a baseline set of steps protestors should have and still should follow to keep the protests as safe as possible. Issue Advocacy does not mean abandoning science when describing complex constellations of risk. I wish more experts had remained Issue Advocates about the risks of crowded, loud, unmasked protest and the risks of structural racism to public health, and thought through the messages they were sending to all audiences engaging with their expertise.

I can wish for this while also acknowledging that the protests are happening against a context in which U.S. political and institutional action and leadership has been largely absent, both on COVID-19 and racism. I know that that leadership gap is by far the biggest villain determining where we now stand.

I also acknowledge, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it a few days ago, that

maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.

And I wish experts would always communicate more clearly about the roles they are filling for us, and think hard about the implications of not being clear about when and why they have switched into another role.