Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Who should you listen to in a crisis? Had you asked me this in 2019, I’d have given a simple answer. Listen to the experts, I would have said.

But in 2020, the world is much more complicated. The pandemic has fractured a lot of long-held beliefs. Among them is the idea that the right information will come from the establishment sources.

We are finding ourselves amid a flurry of amateur communication that might be evidence of the death of the expert, or perhaps, if you’re feeling optimistic, might be a sign of the democratisation of expertise.

A clarion call

The best example of the elevation of the amateur is an article written on March 10, titled “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now“.

This article became a turning point in the fight against the virus. It was technical but accessible, and extremely persuasive. It has been read tens of millions of times, shared by all sorts of people in all sorts of forums, and translated into dozens of languages. You likely already read it.

It includes a few forecasts that have been shown to be imperfect, but it is fair to say the article was very good. It was also a big part of the call to action the world needed, at the exact right time.

March 10 might sound extremely recent, but it was another era. There were only 40,000 cases of coronavirus outside China. Australia had just 92 cases and the US under 1000.

On March 10, nothing much was locked down and no stimulus packages had been announced. While stock markets had begun to wobble and toilet paper was growing scarcer, football seasons were still planned, complete with crowds. Prime Minister Scott Morrison hadn’t even announced his intent to attend the rugby, let alone backed down. The WHO still classified the outbreak as a local epidemic, not a global pandemic.

So March 10 was a pivotal moment crying out for such an article. Its rapid spread helped solidify the public support for strong action. After reading it myself, I looked into the credentials of the author, a young man named Tomas Pueyo.

Isn’t this kind of weird? I found myself thinking, because Tomas Pueyo is not a doctor. He is not an epidemiologist either. He is the author of a self-published book about the Star Wars movies, a former employee of the casual gaming company Zynga, and a quintessential tech-bro, complete with Stanford degree.

Shouldn’t we be listening to epidemiologists at this time? Not silicon valley dudes? I asked myself.

But I couldn’t entirely commit to this line of criticism. I was unable to dismiss Pueyo on his lack of credentials alone, because his work, it seemed, was an extremely valuable voice of reason.

Everyone is putting their oar in

Pueyo was not the only non-expert pushing the world to take action against the coronavirus.

Here in Australia, the Grattan Institute has been vigorous in its calls for action against the virus. Is the Grattan Institute a public health think tank? It is not. Grattan CEO John Daley is a former McKinsey consultant and banker. That hasn’t stopped him from publishing a searing call to action, demanding we shut down the economy. (Economists are famous for dabbling in policy, even where they might not be welcome.)

In the US, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Noah Smith (also an economist) has been extremely motivated in pushing the US to do more testing. Which is frankly a very good idea.

So where are the experts?

Why are these voices gaining attention ahead of the world’s public health experts? Why are we amplifying them? Is it as simple as anti-intellectualism, or the fetishisation of economists? I have three theories for why true public health experts are barely making a dint in the marketplace of ideas.

One is about labour markets.

The problem is probably not that the world is listening to a tech-bro like Pueyo. The problem is we live in an economy where a guy as gifted at analysis and communication as Pueyo ends up working in Silicon Valley, optimising Angry Birds. Silicon Valley can pay people many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, plus stock options. The WHO, meanwhile, offers public servant pay.

The second theory is about raw numbers. There are hundreds of thousands more economists, pundits and tech-bros in the world than there are epidemiologists. Even if every epidemiologist wrote a blog post advocating for urgent action, the odds of one of them striking the right notes that create virality would be low. Others can take the same messages the public health experts wish to convey and shape them into more compelling forms.

The third theory is more concerning: that public health epidemiologists are not free to say what they think. For example, the chief medical officer of Australia comes out and stands next to the prime minister at a press conference, and their messages are the same. The PM claims Australia’s policy directives are based on medical advice.

But how can that be? Surely advice aimed at optimising health outcomes — minimising viral spread — must be tempered with political and economic perspectives. But it need not be if the health policy experts are politically captured and the medical advice is toned down to be more politically acceptable. Public servants everywhere must serve their masters.
Likewise, the WHO is beholden to its member countries, some of whom are very powerful.

In this way of looking at the world, the messages we are getting from outside the world’s health bureaucracies are being shared not just because they are catchier, but because they are purer. Non-experts are free to say what they truly believe without fear. And it is fearless messages we need most at this time.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey