How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

The Authority Void & How You Fill It

Boy, do we have an authority void right now when it comes to reliable, timely, actionable information about COVID-19. How to fill that void? Three options:

1) Wait for a centralized authority to get its act together. Good luck. As Matthew Karnitschnig searingly puts it in his Politico piece, “The incompetence pandemic”:

From Beijing to Brussels, from Rome to Washington, London and beyond, politicians haven’t just failed to rise to the occasion, they’ve engaged in a dangerous game of parsing, obfuscation and reality-denial that has cost lives and delayed a resolute response. Even though virologists have been warning for weeks that the outbreak could explode, political leaders, particularly in the West, did little to halt its advance.

The CDC is scarcely better: for instance, its website on COVID-19 doesn’t get updated on the weekends. Some US municipalities have ordered “sheltering in place,” while others are allowing full spring break and the CDC Monday advised people not to meet in groups larger than 10. Clear as mud.

The wait for centralized authority manifests first as information fatigue, a yearning for more signal and less noise

which then quickly morphs into an understandable but nostalgic desire for a single point of leadership to dispel our uncertainty, exemplified by Laura Gay’s Washington Post piece, “The coronavirus is here. Someone please tell us what to do.”

2) Advocate for a hybrid centralized-distributed approach to authority, one that marries the broadcast power of traditional, centralized authority with crowdsourced expertise.

You can see the outlines of how this option might have worked in experts’ outraged reaction to the British government’s initial approach to COVID-19 — that approach being, in the words of the technologist and investor Azeem Azhar, to let the coronavirus “roll through the population, avoiding tough containment measures because Brits will get bored, and protect the old until enough of us have herd immunity.”

This “hasten herd immunity” approach was presented by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as based in science. Of course, as Azhar points out in his new essay, “Democracy, trust and the virus,” “it is not sufficient to say ‘We are using the best science and leave it at that.’” Especially not now (bolding below is my emphasis):

You can brief journalists and you can get your more articulate ministers to write an article in friendly newspapers. This is an industrial-age approach that might have worked with the poorly-educated, information-starved, under-networked, populace of the 1930s.

In the exponential age, your population is vastly more educated, resource-rich and networked. It has access to pretty much the same international research you do. It has, in many cases, better capabilities than the government can rely on.

COVID-19 exposes this reality. In the exponential age, at least 30 million of us have read Tomas Puyeo’s compendium Medium post on the history and trajectory of the virus and recommended actions. We all have online access to toy interactive modeling of what it might mean to flatten the curve. We all have access to many of the world’s premier epidemiologists as they post and update analyses on Twitter. So of course the initial UK approach (out of step with every other nation’s strategy) was savaged by experts not involved in its formulation, because this is the exponential age and anything beyond “wash your hands” is held up to scrutiny, if not a rapid, messy ersatz peer-review. (The policy changed last week, in part, Axios reports, because of new modeling from an Imperial College COVID-19 response unit.)

Azhar pleads with power to “open the model…open the assumptions” behind its policies and promote “constructive discussion in the brief moments we have available, in a way that could catalyse improvements,” not to mention trust and adherence to politicians’ recommendations. This scenario seems unlikely, given the failures of political leadership to date and power’s desire to avoid inducing “panic” (which has an ever-narrowing definition these days).

3) Revel in the distributed authority of the exponential age and gather your own information from experts. Charlie Warzel of the New York Times exemplifies this approach:he’s given up on waiting for traditional federal authorities like The White House and the CDC and instead gets his COVID-19 information mostly from expert Twitter threads. He urges other experts to join the fray now, in order to influence the strategies of local leaders.

But isn’t social media just a font of misinformation? Stratechery’s Ben Thompson put out a series of graphs last week making an indirect case for better action in the COVID-19 crisis through social media — that more information leads to not just more misinformation, but also more valuable information. The argument, in his two distribution curve graphs:

Thompson’s flagship example: the February 29th Twitter thread of Trevor Bedford, virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, on behalf of the Seattle Flu Study team, which had failed to get the CDC to publicize its finding that sequenced genomes of the virus in Washington State strongly suggested ongoing cryptic transmission well before reporting of the first case there. The thread catalyzed a quantum leap of understanding around the world — weeks before it would have come through official channels — about the virus’s potential spread and the public health measures that might be needed to mitigate it. Thompson puts the lesson thusly (bolding below is my emphasis):

This is not to say that the Internet means that everything is going to be ok, either in the world generally or the coronavirus crisis specifically. But once we get through this crisis, it will be worth keeping in mind the story of Twitter and the heroic Seattle Flu Study team: what stopped them from doing critical research was too much centralization of authority and bureaucratic decision-making; what ultimately made their research materially accelerate the response of individuals and companies all over the country was first their bravery and sense of duty, and secondly the fact that on the Internet anyone can publish anything.

To that end, instead of trying to fight the Internet — to try and build a castle and moat around information, with all of the impossible tradeoffs that resulthow much more value might there be in embracing the deluge? All available evidence is that young people in particular are figuring out the importance of individual verification; for example, this study from the Reuters Institute at Oxford.

The Reuters Institute study found its subjects navigating the new distributed authority environment quite deftly:

We didn’t find, in our interviews, quite the crisis of trust in the media that we often hear about among young people. There is a general disbelief at some of the politicised opinion thrown around, but there is also a lot of appreciation of the quality of some of the individuals’ favoured brands. Fake news itself is seen as more of a nuisance than a democratic meltdown, especially given that the perceived scale of the problem is relatively small compared with the public attention it seems to receive. Users therefore feel capable of taking these issues into their own hands …

We won’t have studies for a while of how effective social media and distributed authority have been during this crisis at moving mindsets and behavior with reliable, timely, actionable information. As we wait for those studies, I’d advise placing your bets with Warzel and Thompson (who has in his email today unconvincingly walked back some of this argument): distribution of authority publishing has opened up myriad opportunities for individual authority — experts intervening with high-quality information and arguments, which we desperately need in the absence of such information and arguments from conventional authorities.