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Why Official Expertise Sucks (And Why That’s OK)

Public expertise on the pandemic from officials (e.g., WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove) and official bodies (e.g., WHO, CDC, FDA) has pretty much sucked. Most people agree with this statement.

Most also agree: These officials and official bodies must do better!

What if “doing better” isn’t possible for official expertise? What if mediocre public expertise from officials weren’t a bug of the pandemic but a feature of all expertise that’s both official and public?

That’s basically Scott Alexander’s argument in his essay “WebMD and the Tragedy of Legible.”

For Alexander, the more an expert or expert body is subject to political or bureaucratic or market pressure, the generally worse the quality of that expert or body’s expertise. From Tony Fauci to WebMD, the more official the expert or expert body, argues Alexander, the less informative they or it will be. (Alexander’s joke: Everything you look up on WebMD eventually leads to “cancer.” “Cancer” is the fallback diagnosis that indemnifies WebMD in case someone using it does in fact get cancer from a condition they’re researching.)

Why is this so? Alexander posits two kinds of expertise:

  • The first, the institutional or bureaucratic kind, from WebMD and Fauci and the CDC, is what Alexander calls legible expertise: expertise that looks like expertise, that has all the expert bells and whistles and badges and medals. “They sit on a giant golden throne,” writes Alexander of legible experts, “with a giant neon arrow pointing to them saying ’TRUST THIS GUY.’” And with that status comes the desire to maintain or enhance that status — even at the expense of accuracy. Power corrupts, after all.
  • The second kind of expertise, illegible expertise, is not what we think of when we hear the word “illegible” — it isn’t jargon-ridden and incomprehensible. It’s instead “illegible” because it lacks the obvious markers of expertise. It doesn’t look like traditional expertise, it wasn’t generated in formal expertise processes, its producer might not even be a credentialed expert, or it’s not labeled and positioned in a narrative to distinguish it from non-experts. It’s a Twitter thread. It’s a TikTok explainer. It’s graffiti in the bathroom stall.

For Alexander, experts who engage in the illegible version are free to optimize only for accuracy, not status maintenance. So illegible expertise can be “illegibly great” (Alexander’s words) but legible expertise “is most often legibly mediocre.” Illegible expertise is the Less Wrong COVID blogger Zvi Mowshowitz(says Alexander); legible expertise is Rochelle Walensky:

When the Director of the CDC asserts an opinion, she has to optimize for two things – being right, and keeping power. If she doesn’t optimize for the second, she gets replaced as CDC Director by someone who does. That means she’s trying to solve a harder problem than Zvi is, and it makes sense that sometimes, despite having more resources than Zvi, she does worse at it.

The way I imagine this is that Zvi reads some papers on whether the coronavirus has airborne transmission, sees the direction they’re leaning, and announces on his blog that it probably has airborne transmission.

The Director of the CDC reads those same papers. But some important Senator says that if airborne transmission is announced, important industries in his state will go bankrupt. Citizens Against Lockdowns argues that the CDC already screwed up by stressing the later-proven-not-to-exist fomite-based transmission, ignoring the needs of ordinary people in favor of a bias towards imagining hypothetical transmission mechanisms that never materialize; some sympathetic Congressman tells the director that if she makes that same mistake a second time, she’s out. One of the papers saying that airborne transmission is impossible comes from Stanford, and the Director owes the dean of Stanford’s epidemiology department a favor for helping gather support for one of her policies once. So the Director puts out a press release saying the evidence is not quite strong enough to say airborne transmission definitely happens, and they’ll review it further.”

Alexander offers a neat little proof of legible vs. illegible expertise from earlier this year when Rochelle Walensky accidentally occupied both positions simultaneously. Walensky inadvertently revealed on a podcast back in Junethe differences between the CDC’s official policy and her own private recommendations on the booster question. Walensky on the podcast was much more candid and logical than Walensky behind a podium. Walensky on the podcast gave the advice that she was giving people close to her, as a relative or friend or colleague. Walensky behind the podium was giving the advice a legible expert would give, which was very cautious and (as it turned out) not really very accurate.

Alexander doesn’t think this is a tragedy, however — because, he argues, it could be so much worse:

It doesn’t always pick the most trustworthy people. But it almost always gets someone in the top 50%, sometimes the top 25%. There are few biologists who deny evolution, few epidemiologists who think vaccines don’t work, and few economists who are outright communists… .Think of centers of expertise like the CDC or the IGM Economists Panel as giant systems for disentangling corruption and power. Their job is to produce one or two people who can get in front of the population and say something which has some resemblance to reality, even though the entire rest of the economy and body politic is trying to corrupt them. They…actually do sort of okay. Anthony Fauci is neither Attila the Hun nor Trofim Lysenko. He’s a kind of bumbling careerist with a decent understanding of epidemiology and a heart that’s more or less in the right place. The whole scientific-technocratic complex is a machine which takes Moloch as input and manages — after spending billions of dollars and the careers of thousands of hard-working public servants — to produce Anthony Fauci as output. This should be astonishing, and we are insufficiently grateful.”

Some observations:

  • The mean of expertise is trending fast toward the illegible, driven there by Twitter and the evaporation of news media. Outside of 100% official experts such as Fauci or Van Kerkhove, every public expert is a mix of illegible and legible expertise that’s already heavily weighted toward the illegible.
  • Platforms that host illegible expertise as a matter of course gives public experts the best opportunity to be honest and accurate as well as the most competition from uncredentialled experts or experts poaching from other fields.
  • One goal of conventional science communication is to increase the expert’s opportunities for legible expertise (e.g., an interview with a big media outlet). But if legible = mediocre and illegible is where experts let their guard down to be experts, shouldn’t the premium be on increasing the illegible opportunities?
  • Alexander seems to think we can tell whether expertise is legible or illegible by the format it uses. I have my doubts. Twitter, to take the obvious example, isn’t always informal. I think this blurring of legible/illegible will eventually drive experts to colonize more and more previously questionable and illegible platforms in a quest for spaces where they can be accurate and authentic.
  • We hope and demand that institutional science bodies and figures be stalwart defenders of the truth, not the malleable, ambitious bureaucrats they are. Perhaps we should drop that hope and demand.