Among the most admired men and women in America today are our technical experts. They tend to reside in Silicon Valley or Boston, and even in The Washington Times’ own backyard, Montgomery County, Maryland. They work in bits and bytes, and are given over to making astounding pronouncements on seemingly-miraculous health cures, colonizing the outer galaxies of the Milky Way, advanced weapons systems and uploading our consciousness onto computers to achieve immortality.
The public believes much of this, which, in a way, makes sense. The promise of modern science speaks to our deepest, if sometimes misplaced, human longings. Who among us, after all, does not wish for a comfortable, long life, filled with as few pains as possible? Since this is the case, the people (and industries) devoted to the relief of our estate are naturally viewed as saviors. This status accords them a tremendous amount of respect and benefit of the doubt. Some of it, one must concede, is warranted. And after all, one has to place one’s faith somewhere, especially in times of crisis.
But hero-worship of any kind has its limits. That was evident this week when two leading science journals, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Science, retracted published studies on coronavirus cures that had been based on unverifiable data from the analytics company Surgisphere Corp. Now, retractions of this kind are, under normal circumstances, a big deal, especially since they appear to have made it past the supposedly-rigorous vetting process needed to appear in such august scientific journals. But this mistake is made all the worse by the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) along with several countries halted testing on hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus based on the bum data published in The Lancet. (The WHO has since resumed its research on the drug.) Every day counts in the fight against the virus. Interrupting research at this time because of mistakes of this kind is blameworthy.
To be fair to the WHO and the scientific community at large, this is an unusual, hectic moment in our history. Moreover, the global public does not make this easier as it clamors for a cure to the virus — a cure that, if achieved, would shatter world speed records. The retractions also, it must be said, demonstrate the seriousness with which the scientific community holds itself to account once made aware of an error. In a sense, one can say the system works.
Then again, one could — and we think, should — level the friendly critique that precisely because these are hectic times, large-scale social decisions of the kinds that shutdown entire countries should be undertaken cautiously and based on tested, not speculative research-in-progress. Put more generally, we think it is long past time that the stigma of questioning our “experts,” especially during times of crisis, be eradicated.
This does not mean that scientists or technical research should be mistrusted. It does not mean that we ignore the prescriptions of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases or the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House. But it does, however, indicate that the national conversation on how to handle the scourge of COVID-19 — in all its aspects — need not be so one-sided. The concern and suggestions of non-experts are too readily dismissed. Not only is this wrong, it’s stupid. It’s wrong because we are a democracy, so rule by a cadre of elite technocrats is antithetical to our history and our spirit. More importantly, it’s stupid because the rarified circles our elite decision-makers travel in act as tremendous blinders to the concerns — and reality — of the majority of Americans.
Historically, when America has been faced with large-scale problems, the best solutions result under conditions where teamwork between the “experts” and “non-experts” is fostered. To beat the coronavirus and rebuild America, it will take precisely the same conversations.