The Self-Appointed Covid Experts Are At It Again

The Self-Appointed Covid Experts Are At It Again

The Self-Appointed Covid Experts Are At It Again

The armchair Covid quarterbacks are screaming some new tunes: Masks don’t work! Covid came from a lab! Here’s why we need to be cautious about trusting them.


Over the past month, two topics in Covid science have made the news everywhere, from newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal to cable news channels, and across social media and other websites. The first was precipitated by a systematic review of studies on masking by the Cochrane Library. The second was whipped up by a Department of Energy assessment on Covid’s origins.

What happened in both these cases is important for several reasons. First, despite the content of the Cochrane review and the reports of the DOE assessment, several high-profile commentators rushed to take the moment to misread both so they could make the case that “masks don’t work” and that Covid is “most likely” to have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Many of my colleagues smacked their heads in dismay when Bret Stephens pontificated in The New York Times in late February that the Cochrane study definitively showed that there are no population-level benefits to mask-wearing and demanded that scientists apologize to people like him who, in his view, had been right all along.

It’s true that Cochrane did itself no favors with public messaging that was open to willful misinterpretation. It was even less helpful when one of the lead authors of the study bluntly declared that the study showed there is “no evidence” that masks work—a false summary that Stephens and other self-appointed experts eagerly seized on.

Last week, the Cochrane Library issued a statement that was a direct rejoinder to Stephens and others:

Many commentators have claimed that a recently updated Cochrane Review shows that ‘masks don’t work’, which is an inaccurate and misleading interpretation.

It would be accurate to say that the review examined whether interventions to promote mask wearing help to slow the spread of respiratory viruses, and that the results were inconclusive. Given the limitations in the primary evidence, the review is not able to address the question of whether mask-wearing itself reduces people’s risk of contracting or spreading respiratory viruses.

In Stephens’s own newspaper, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci went further than Cochrane’s clarification and did a close reading of all the evidence, including the contents of the Cochrane review as well as non-randomized studies, which the Library generally does not include in its analyses. Unlike Stephens, Tufekci actually did the homework and wrestled with the studies and the data itself. She didn’t rely on the reputation of the Cochrane Library to make her case. Her verdict is that “the evidence is relatively straightforward: Consistently wearing a mask, preferably a high-quality, well-fitting one, provides protection against the coronavirus.” And she said that in various settings, mask-wearing has been associated with population-level effects. In contrast to the dogmatic Stephens, Tufekci tried to put masking in perspective: “Masks are a tool, not a talisman or a magic wand. They have a role to play when used appropriately and consistently at the right times.” It was, to put it mildly, an awkward look: one Times columnist having to clean up careless smears and scientific misinformation from another Times columnist.

This denigration of scientists by arrogant pundits with no scientific training who have nevertheless been accepted as trusted voices on these issues has happened again and again during the pandemic. It’s part of a growing proliferation of commentators who have declared themselves authorities in just about every field under the sun, whatever their actual level of knowledge. They’re not so much experts as experts in being experts.

In other settings, law professor Frank Pasquale has dubbed this phenomenon “meta-expertise.” As he writes, the meta-expert “asserts expansive intellectual authority” and positions themself as a “powerful ‘tribune of the people’ capable of vindicating both common sense and counterintuitive findings in the face of guildish lethargy and incuriosity.”

Pasquale doesn’t make a cliquish counterproposal in defense of professional expertise and judgment—this is not about staying in your lane—but asks for caution in reliance on more generalist approaches to critical matters of public importance. That’s something worth thinking about when it comes to the interpretation of science.

The shoddiness of the “experts in being experts” approach could be seen soon after Stephens’s diatribe on masking, when his alma mater, The Wall Street Journal, published a front-page story: “Lab Leak Most Likely Origin of Covid-19 Pandemic, Energy Department Now Says.” Like lemmings into the sea, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, and others followed the WSJ’s lead and crowed victoriously, once again chiding those who had stuck with the theory that Covid had emerged from animals in the Wuhan market, and not a lab leak. Despite the fact that the Department of Energy admitted to having “low confidence” in this assessment, these pundits again asked for apologies or contrition from scientists and others for the error of their ways. Within two weeks the House GOP got into the act, with congressional hearings highlighting the lab leak and purported cover-up; the experts rolled out in support of the lab leak thesis provided no new evidence, only rehashed claims and conspiracies about a campaign of suppression.

What is important here is that once again the “meta-experts,” even the more careful ones, were all over this story—suggesting that the deep uncertainty in our knowledge of Covid’s origins gave the lab-leak theory probably more credibility than it deserves. Once again, when rigorous health and science reporters dug into the story, what became clear is that, while the origin of Covid-19 and its jump (or jumps) into humans remains an open question, the current weight of evidence still supports a market origin for the virus. Animals susceptible to SARS-COV-2 were in the market in Wuhan in late 2019, in a setting where the virus was later detected on processing machinery, and where the earliest known cases of Covid-19 emerged.

Is this an open-and-shut case? No, but it’s far more empirical evidence than we have for a lab leak. We should keep pursuing both theories and others that emerge, but suggesting an equivalence at the moment for a lab leak and a zoonotic leap at the market is not helpful. Nor is it helpful to suggest that “science has become a vested-interest industry,” as Tim Trevan, who runs a for-profit safety consulting company called Chrome Biorisk Management, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, a line that was parroted by German Lopez in The New York Times.

No one is suggesting that scientists get everything right, that their findings shouldn’t be held to scrutiny, or that the implications of their work shouldn’t be debated vigorously, especially in times of existential threat such as these. But over the past three years, the same group of pundits—who are all long on elite journalistic status and very short on actual training or experience in infectious diseases—have been able to centrally shape the debates on matters of profound importance. At the same time, scientists and public health experts are often cast as not to be trusted, captured by vested interests, lacking common sense, and out of touch with what most Americans think and believe.

This flattening of expertise has significant policy implications, as it delegitimizes the specificity of domain knowledge. As a recent commentary in The New England Journal of Medicine has cautioned, “Perhaps the most substantial threat…is that members of the public are coming to believe that facts don’t exist—that all facts are political and therefore a matter of opinion.” The authors of the commentary also note that this denigration of expertise is making its way into the courts, where subject-matter experts are being excluded from key decisions on climate change in administrative agencies. In this new world, with apologies to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, everyone apparently has a right to their own opinions and their own facts.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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