Scott Aaronson blogged in defense of “armchair epidemiology”. Scott makes several points I agree with, but he also advocates that rather than discounting ideas from “contrarians” who have no special expertise in the matter, each one of us should evaluate the input of such people on its merits.
I disagree. I can judge on their merits the validity of a proposed P vs NP proof or a quantum algorithm for SAT, but I have seen time and again smart and educated non-experts misjudge such proposals. As much as I’d like to think otherwise, I would probably be fooled just as easily by a well-presented proposal in area X that “brushes under the rug” subtleties that experts in X would immediately notice.
This is not to say that non experts should stay completely out of the matter. Just like scientific journalists such as Erica Klarreich and Kevin Hartnett of quanta can do a great job of explaining computer science topics to lay audience, so can other well-read people serve as “signal boosters” and highlight works of experts in epidemiology. Journalist Helen Branswell of stat news has been following the novel coronavirus since January 4th.
The difference is that these journalists don’t pretend to see what the experts are missing but rather to highlight and simplify the works that experts are already doing. This is unlike “contrarians” such as Robin Hanson that do their own analysis on a spreadsheet and come up with a “home brewed” policy proposal such as deliberate infection or variolation (with “hero hotels” in which people go to be deliberately infected). I am not saying that such proposals are necessarily wrong, but I am saying that I (or anyone else without the experience in this field) am not qualified to judge them. Even if they did “make sense” to me (they don’t) I would not feel any more confident in judging them than I would in reviewing a paper in astronomy. There is a reason why Wikipedia has a “no original research” policy.
Moreover, the attitude of dismissing expertise can be dangerous, whether it comes in the form of “teach the debate” in the context of evolution, or “ClimateGate” in the context of climate change. Unlike the narrative of few brave “dissenters” or “contrarians”, in the case of COVID-19, experts as well as the world health organization have been literally sounding the alarm (see also timeline, as well as this NPR story on the US response). Yes, some institutions, and especially the U.S., failed in several aspects (most importantly in the early production of testing). But one of the most troubling aspects is the constant sense of “daylight” and distrust between the current U.S. administration and its own medical experts. Moreover, the opinions of people such as law professor Richard Epstein are listened to even when they are far out of their depth. It is one thing to entertain the opinion of non-expert contrarians when we have all the time in the world to debate, discuss and debunk. It’s quite another to do so in the context of a fast-moving health emergency. COVID-19 is an emergency that has medical, social, economical, and technological aspects, but it would best be addressed if each person contributes according to their skill set and collaborates with people of complementary backgrounds.