What is the Proper Role of Expert Opinion in the Management of a Public Crisis? Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic
Western strategies for mitigating the harms of the Covid-19 pandemic, like China’s, relied heavily on centralized, top-down governance. Expert knowledge and opinion played an indispensable role in providing scientific legitimation to that vertical, centralized response.
The problem is, as many people have already pointed out, pandemic interventions legitimated by expert opinion inflicted wide-ranging collateral harms (including untreated illness, poverty, depression, and the suspension of basic liberties) that are difficult to justify, especially when we consider the results of much more moderate approaches to disease management, such as those of Sweden and Florida, which were not worse than the results of a broad sweep of regions with intense and prolonged lockdowns.
In this article, I offer a preliminary assessment of the role of expert opinion in national and international responses to Covid-19, a diagnosis of the harms associated with expert recommendations, and four constructive proposals concerning the responsible use of expert opinion in future public crises, whether in the domain of public health, climate change, food security, or energy supply. I will make the case that if the role of experts in governance had been conceived and institutionalised more modestly and prudently, we could have avoided or at least significantly mitigated many of the catastrophic consequences of misguided expert advice.
The argument will proceed in six stages: First, I clarify what I mean by “expert opinion.” Second, I will briefly make the case for the relevance of expert opinion to pandemic management. Third, I’ll sketch out the official and unofficial role that experts played in shaping government responses to the pandemic threat. Fourth, I highlight five notable ways expert opinion failed us during the pandemic. Fifth, I offer a diagnosis of the harms inflicted by misguided expert advice. Finally, I draw some general conclusions for the responsible use of expert opinion to manage future public crises.