I don’t say this bluntly often enough:
Public expertise isn’t “an expert who’s also good with the media.” Or “is good at giving talks.” Or “is good at Twitter.”
It’s not an aggregation of performance skills. Those skills are of course very useful if you’re trying to communicate with non-specialists. But they’re not the thing itself.
You’re a public expert, not just a research communicator. The core of public expertise is delivering evidence-based insights and frames that help non-experts make better decisions and live better lives.
And it’s not a calvary. It’s usually just you.
Being a public expert is often about getting ahead of your field or another field and going through a wall of institutional or cultural resistance to get out what you know.
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has emerged as one of the most pivotal, prescient public experts of the pandemic — insisting on speaking out about what she knows and sees, despite immense resistance from many public health experts who’ve opposed her readings of the science and told her she should get back in her lane.
Here’s Tufekci telling Tyler Cowen on his podcast about the moment she decided to do a Twitter thread — a Twitter thread — in March 2020 about how the CDC and WHO were wrong then about masking:
Right after I wrote about masks in March 2020, honestly, I thought that’s it. I’m going to get canceled. That’s the end of my public writing career. I just contradicted the CDC and the WHO at the beginning of a pandemic. I don’t have a medical degree whatsoever. I just thought, “I have to do it. I’m a tenured academic. If I’m not going to do this now, what is the point of tenure if I’m not going to take this risk?” [laughter]
I thought, I did my job, now I’m going to get canceled. Instead, what I got was a lot of emails from people in the medical professions thanking me, saying, “Thank you for writing it.” I thought, “You’re welcome.” But part of me was thinking, “Why didn’t you guys write this?” [laughs] Don’t thank me. I would like to have somebody with more credibility to have written this. What I realized was they were just either silent, or parts of them had convinced themselves of really illogical things, like a mask might be harmful. There’s no logic to it. There’s nothing. It’s just groupthink.
Cowen asked Tufekci “what can we do to make mainstream media less risk-averse?” Her answer reveals that it has nothing to do with mainstream media — and everything to do with the courage of public expertise:
TUFEKCI: Yes, this is a really difficult question because I ended up writing an op-ed essentially criticizing CDC and the WHO on masks in March 2020. At the time, people were still saying masks could infect you, make things worse. Never in a million years I thought I’d start my own personal pandemic, criticizing global health authorities or the CDC. That was a really weird situation.
I have to say, I did not like it one bit. I knew they were wrong around early March. I have links to Hong Kong. I was researching the field. There’s a lot of infectious disease specialists in Southeast Asia who are way ahead of us, partly because they’ve been through SARS and partly because they really are way ahead of us. I started tweeting out the argument on why they were wrong, just on the science side of the virus, the science side of masks — all of that.
I just twiddled my thumbs after tweeting out the whole argument, hoping somebody would write it. Not me because it shouldn’t be. It’s really terrible to undermine, as you say, a nation’s leading health authorities. I hoped it would come from — I don’t know — the ex-director of CDC, somebody like that, somebody with really high stature, so it didn’t look like a random challenger. Because how are you going to distinguish that from an anti-vaxxer or a quack? That is a real problem, but it didn’t happen.
I think the real question you’re asking isn’t what should the New York Times have done. In some sense, I think, what should have our scientific establishment have done? Why didn’t they create a consortium? Why didn’t the universities create their own advisory body, even if our own authorities weren’t functioning very well, partly because of Trump’s not great — I mean really negative influence.
We didn’t step up as academics to say, “Here’s another consortium of lots of experts.” Not just one person saying, “Oh, by the way . . .” Because that’s really corrosive, at some point, to have individuals be ahead of the health authorities.
I’ve worked with a number of experts in similar situations. They see what needs to be said. But they hesitate, hoping someone else might take up the challenge. That a group of colleagues might join them in a joint letter to an august journal. That a reporter might pick up on their argument and write a piece.
And what usually happens is — nothing. Until they realize it’s up to them.