How researchers get heard

You May Not Challenge This Opinion

(BTW, thanks to everyone who emailed after my note Tuesday to ask: “But are you going to the game? You left me hanging!” Yes, I’m still going, although I’d prefer DC United required a vaccine passport for admittance. Check out this thread by Muge Cevik on outdoor transmission risk and new variants. )

ICYMI, the FDA and CDC conducted a giant experiment earlier this week on vaccine safety messaging. It hasn’t gone well:

Pauses in vaccine rollouts impact public confidence in those vaccines — this is or should be well known from the European rollout of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Reuters reported last year that confidence in the AZ vaccine plummeted across the EU except in the UK, where there was no pause in its rollout.

What the US does still impacts the world, hugely, whether we like it or not. African public health officials are alarmed about similar spikes in vaccine hesitancy across the continent following the FDA/CDC announcement. Forty percent of South Africans already say they won’t get vaccinated. “When the FDA suspends, it makes headlines for days,” the New York Times quoted Catherine Kyobutungi, the director of the African Population and Health Research Center there. “When it lifts the suspension, it doesn’t make as many headlines.”

Many have argued that the FDA’s primary responsibility is safety and that the pause is a “normal” (their language) step when potential adverse effects are reported from a vaccine such as the rare clotting potentially attributable to the J&J. Scripps Translational Science Institute Director Eric Topol (not an epidemiologist or virologist, but I’m not sure we should call him not a domain expert) sums up the opposing argument:

So there was the controversy about the decision; and then, of course, there was the controversy about the questioning of the decision. Because the clotting problem seems to have impacted only women under age 50 (at least so far), critics of the FDA/CDC decision were accused of a sexist double standard. Other critics were accused of straying from their lane, which has become a common trope of last resort in science communications. For example, epidemiologist Celine Gounder goes on CNN to tell Nate Silver to shut up:

This is fun — God knows I have wanted to tell Nate Silver to shut up any number of times — but it exposes one of the worst habits in science communication today:

Too many researchers think their domain authority immunizes them from challenge.

They think domain authority should automatically confer social authority.

An additional self-ratifying assumption behind this stance: Domain authority is unanimous, or pretty damn close.

But in this as in so many cases, domain authority is actually all over the place.

In the 21st century, you must start with social authority — because that is all there is. And it is always contested. Get used to it.

However you earn social authority — connecting with communities through shared values, force of argument, valuable insight, ideally a combination of all of those — it will not be through nostalgia for a world in which credentials forestalled challenge, and challengers could be dismissed with a flick of the wrist.

The virologist Angie Rasmussen, who also went after armchair virologists this week on the pause decision, tweeted confidently that she felt perfectly safe about her J&J vaccine and then repeated that argument in a New York Times op-ed yesterday:

But people do not. Rasmussen’s argument exemplifies how the “trust me, I’m a scientist” fallacy collapses: I’m a scientist, I trust the system, therefore you should, too —​ and if you don’t well you’re not a domain expert.

Social authority doesn’t work that way. This week shows the limits of domain authority’s arrogance and assumption of power. Zeynep, as usual, has something conclusive to say about all this: