1. Introduction

This brief essay will argue that whether we should adopt an expert's opinion is a subjective decision and depends on whether the difference between the expert's knowledge and our own is more significant than the degree to which we discount their opinion given uncertainties surrounding the expert's truthfulness, independence, and consistency.

To start, I will challenge the notion of 'experts' and discuss under which circumstances one might want to defer judgment to experts (2). In (3), I will outline the importance of trust gained through consistency and incorruptibility, especially when 'experts' disagree with one another, and argue under which circumstances one should adopt an expert's claim. Lastly, I will outline how the definition and characteristics outlined before relate to Dr. Fauci and his central position within this pandemic (4). I will conclude that if Dr. Fauci disagrees with me on a Covid-related policy I (personally) will suspend judgement and not simply assume that he is right because of the high value I put on consistency, honesty, and independence, which leads me to significantly discount his superior knowledge (5).

2. Deferring judgement to 'experts'

Before we can consider whether to defer our judgement to experts, we first must decide who the experts are. Who gets to be referred to as an expert, and in which field? Are you an expert in biology if you have read an article about it online? Likely not. Are you an expert in biology if you are an experienced professor in biology? Likely yes. But where is the cut-off? Are you an expert once you have received a degree in biology? This leaves significant room for subjectivity which makes it easy for someone to proclaim to be an expert in a field to add authority to their argument. Once we accept the 'superior statuses' of experts, we give more weight to their opinions and their reach increases, like individuals on Twitter or Instagram who get verified and receive a blue check. But in the case of 'experts', there is no clear rule on who should receive the blue checkmark, and no clear entity that gives people those checkmarks, so individuals can quickly be hyped up to 'expert status'. Lastly, the concept is fundamentally flawed because it separates everyone into expert or non-expert status, ignoring the varying levels of knowledge individuals have. An undergraduate biology student understands more about biology than a high school student, and a biology professor even more so. If you declared both the bachelor's student and the professor as experts it would give them the same status, although the professor clearly knows much more about biology than the student.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that we can clearly define who the experts are: Should we suspend our own beliefs and defer judgement to people who know more about a given topic than we do? Well, deferring judgement would entail a belief that the expert's statement has a higher likelihood of being true than our own, on the basis that they know more about the subject. It is important to appreciate that being an expert in a field does not make your statement automatically true - instead, assuming a positive marginal utility of knowledge, it simply makes your statement more likely to be true, but you could still be wrong. For instance, until the 16th century, astronomers thought that the earth was at the centre of the universe. Given their expertise, they were more likely to be right than a peasant who might have stated that the sun is in the centre - but the peasant would still have been right. Nevertheless, assuming a positive marginal utility of knowledge, knowing more about a subject makes it more likely to be right than someone who knows less, but it does not guarantee it. Thus, assuming that 'experts' share a common verdict, are honest, consistent, and not influenced by any other considerations[1], it would then be rational to follow their guidance since while they may be wrong, they have a higher likelihood of being right than you do, given their superior knowledge.

3. Discounting uncertainty, trust, and consistency

While we know whether we are being honest and whether our statements are 'affected' by other considerations, we do not regarding others (Christensen 2007). For example, a high school student may say that the United States entered the first world war in 1914, which his teacher says is wrong. The student is aware that the teacher knows much more about the subject, but he does not know whether the teacher is honest, or whether some friends are collaborating with the teacher to fool him. This uncertainty needs to be accounted for. If a new study comes out and says that smoking is not bad for your health, but the study is entirely sponsored by the tobacco industry (Bright 2021), then the uncertainty about whether the scientists behind the study are honest would have to be accounted for. Thus, you should discount the higher level of knowledge these experts have with the uncertainty of trust. If you believe that the uncertainty behind the truthfulness is large enough, then you should not defer judgement to the experts (the study) and perhaps even suspend judgement on it. Whether the uncertainty trumps the higher level of knowledge is a highly subjective and personal decision which will depend on how significant and frequent the dishonesty has been, as well as your judgement of the dishonesty.

The importance of trust in specific 'experts' gets exacerbated when considering statements on which experts disagree, what Goldman (2001) refers to as the expert/expert problem. In this case, you cannot argue based on expert status and higher levels of knowledge, since both experts are considered 'experts' as discussed in (2). I will now consider two ways in which to evaluate conflicting statements by experts. First, you should consider the experts' incentives based on their interests and biases (Goldman 2001). For example, whether there are political pressures by the President that nominated them that they must consider in their recommendation, or whether the tobacco industry will continue to sponsor their research if they reach undesirable conclusions. Whether one should discount political considerations more or less than financial incentives and other elements is once more a subjective and individual decision but will likely come down to the degree to which the 'expert' is set to gain or lose personally by stating their conclusions on a given topic. Second, you should consider the experts' consistency by considering their past track record (Goldman 2001). If one expert has been proven right many times on similar topics and has been arguing for the same side, you should (and are likely to) trust them more. If another expert says that based on their research and superior knowledge you should not do A because it is ineffective, but then shortly after say that you should, it is fully rational to question why their latest stand on recommending A should now be the correct one. Thus, one should price in this uncertainty when judging an expert's opinion. Whether we should adopt the expert's opinion or not is a subjective decision and depends on whether the difference between the expert's knowledge and your own is more significant than the degree to which you discount their opinion given uncertainties, trust, and previous consistencies. For example, if a tobacco study that is fully funded by a tobacco company concludes that smoking is not bad for your health, then I personally will not assume that they are correct because I judge the uncertainty about their trustfulness and honesty is much larger than the scientists' higher level of knowledge in this area. Further, whether to accept an expert's claim or not does not have to be a binary decision but instead can exist on a continuum. The uncertainty around an expert's opinion can simply lower your confidence in the expert's opinion instead of leading to an outright rejection. For example, if the tobacco study was only partially financed by tobacco companies, I might discount the scientists' conclusions less than previously, leading me not to reject it, but merely to lowering my confidence in their conclusions.

4. The case of Dr. Fauci

While the definition of 'expert' should be questioned as discussed in (2), I believe that most people would define Dr. Fauci as an expert within a group of fields that cover Covid-19 related issues. Thus, for the sake of argument, this is assumed to be true. So, based on (2), if we were to further assume that Dr. Fauci's verdicts are consistent, fully honest, and not influenced by other aspects, it would be rational to defer judgement to him. However, I posit that his verdicts are not consistent, and we cannot reasonably assume that they are fully honest and not influenced by other aspects and interests.

First, Dr. Fauci is not a regular scientist, independent from outside influence or his own aspirations[2] - he has evolved into an institution in itself, being the highest-paid individual in the US government (Forbes 2021), having advised many US presidents personally, holding regular press conferences from the White House, appearing on major talk shows, and wielding wide power over Covid-related legislation which affects millions of people in their daily lives in the most fundamental ways. This has led him to a highly politicised position in which he needs to weigh up how to communicate certain aspects, depending on how they may affect the agency he represents, the president, the government's strategy, the people's trust and, naturally, his own interests (Alexander 2021).

Second, Dr. Fauci and other notable medical organisations like the World Health Organisation have flip-flopped on a variety of issues such as when they told people not to buy and wear any masks in early 2020, before reverting and saying that people should wear simple self-made cotton masks, before then saying that they are likely ineffective and only recommending medical-grade masks (Wall Street Journal 2021). This lack of consistency in expert decision-making naturally leads you to discount the latest expert recommendation (e.g., wearing medical-grade masks), since they have flip-flopped so often and may do so once more after the current recommendation. Crucially, how 'bad' this inconsistency is and how much it should be discounted will in part be based on how the policy recommendations were presented and defended at the time. If experts stay humble and do not treat their claims as fixed facts, then flip-flopping may be considered less bad than when they were stated as facts. Importantly, in the case of mask recommendations, the statements were proclaimed as 'settled science' inferring that the statements should not be questioned since they are a matter of fact (Shullenberger 2022). Clearly, flip-flopping after declaring facts settled leads to a more significant loss of trust which needs to be discounted accordingly.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, whether you should assume that Dr. Fauci is right about a given Covid-19 policy depends on whether his higher level of knowledge on the topic outweighs the degree to which you subjectively discount his statement based on the trust he has lost and his inconsistencies through policy flip-flopping, as well as other considerations he must make as a public persona when giving policy recommendations. Based on this you either fully accept Dr. Fauci's claims, accept them but lower your confidence in his claims, or outright reject the claim and potentially suspend judgement. Based on the high value I put on consistency, honesty, and independence from outside influences, I significantly discount his statements which (for me) outweighs his superior knowledge on the topic, leading me to suspend judgement on the Covid-19 policies he recommended.

Notes

[1] The importance of these aspects will be further discussed in (3).

[2] However, even if Dr. Fauci were a 'regular scientist', he might still not be free of outside influence or driven by personal ambition (Bright 2021), so the following points will also hold (perhaps to a lesser degree) in case the expert in question is not a public persona such as Dr. Fauci has become.

References

Alexander, S. 2021. WebMD, And The Tragedy Of Legible Expertise.

URL: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/webmd-and-the-tragedy-of-legible?utm_source=url&s=r [accessed 5 March 2022]

Bright, L.K. 2021. Why do scientists lie? Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 89, pp.117-129.

Christensen, D. 2007. Epistemology of disagreement: The good news. The Philosophical Review, 116(2), pp.187-217.

Forbes, 2021. Dr. Anthony Fauci: The Highest Paid Employee In The Entire U.S. Federal Government. Forbes.

URL: https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamandrzejewski/2021/01/25/dr-anthony-fauci-the-highest-paid-employee-in-the-entire-us-federal-government/?sh=13d64ee386f0 [accessed 14 May 2022]

Goldman, A.I. 2001. Experts: Which ones should you trust? Philosophy and phenomenological research, 63(1), pp.85-110.

Richardson, V., 2021. 'I represent science': Fauci claims GOP detractors are really criticizing science. URL: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/nov/28/i-represent-science-fauci-claims-gop-detractors-ar/ [accessed 5 March 2022]

Shullenberger, G., 2022. Were masks a waste of time? UnHerd. URL: https://unherd.com/2022/02/were-masks-a-waste-of-time/ [accessed 14 May 2022]

Wall Street Journal, 2021. Dr. Fauci and the Mask Disaster. Wall Street Journal. URL: https://www.wsj.com/articles/dr-fauci-and-the-mask-disaster-11624398991 [accessed 14 May 2022]