Op Eds

Physician, Know Thy Place

It is disconcerting to know the objects of conspiracy theories personally. As Harvard students, we learn from some of the same experts who participate in the hoax of climate change and researchers who work on microchipped vaccines. When we talk to them during office hours or sit in their lectures, we find it remarkable that such good-natured people are apparently part of various malevolent cabals!

But while it’s fun to make fun of such conspiracy theorizing, it’s important not to dismiss a crisis of confidence that runs deeper. Faith in academia has dropped below 50 percent among American adults. Such widespread doubt can’t be blamed solely on irresponsible anti-intellectuals and conspiratorial grifters. There is a genuinely difficult, central question about how to deal with experts — when should we listen to them? The answer: quite a bit less than they might like.

The pandemic has heightened the stakes of figuring out when to defer to experts. Predicting how the virus will spread in certain circumstances, or the risk and efficacy of certain vaccines, requires extremely technical judgment. There are professional biologists and epidemiologists who are trained to answer exactly these types of questions. The argument for deferring to the pros is strongest on questions like these, and I wish more Americans would.

But the power of putting an issue beyond normal political wrangling and into “just believe the science” territory is incredibly alluring. Once you decide that lockdowns, or school closures, or travel bans are the right response to the pandemic, it’s tempting to shield them under the protective umbrella of “the science” — even though no amount of scientific expertise can resolve the moral and political tradeoffs of these policies. Science can sometimes tell us that X is likely to result from Y. When we choose to do Y, though, we are always making a moral judgment beyond the scope of expertise alone.

More than 1,200 epidemiologists made this mistake when they temporarily broke from their standard social distancing advice to defend protests for racial justice as “vital to … public health.” They may well have been correct. But the howls of hypocrisy went up nonetheless, and not unreasonably: an epidemiologist is not a philosopher or political scientist. To be sure, epidemiologists have professional insight into the public health costs of systemic racism. Like anyone else, they should have strong personal political convictions and act on them.


But making prescriptive political statements in their professional capacity suggests an inability to differentiate topics where they have expertise from those where they don’t. There is, in theory, a scientific answer to “how safe was it to protest in early 2020?” There cannot be a scientific answer to “should we have done so?”

Given the leftward tilt of academia, reigning in the technocracy may feel uncomfortably like giving ground to the right. It’s not. What is civilian control of the military if not the restriction of experts’ authority — this time hawkish generals instead of liberal scientists — to their area of expertise? The principle in question is not partisan.

I don’t want to suggest that the solution is for experts to “stay in their lanes,” terrified of epistemic trespass. One of the best Covid-19 predictive models was created by a data scientist in his twenties with “zero background in infectious-disease modeling.” Experts should be challenged and lanes merged into, allowing for disciplines to build on each other. Professionals should just be honest with themselves about how far their expertise extends. By all means opine on other areas, too, but make arguments that stand on their own; don’t expect us to defer to your authority outside its domain.

This is the correct approach because it’s more likely to lead to truth in the long run. But as we’re starting to find out, it’s also the approach in the narrow self-interest of the academy. The more you try to sneak under the hood of “believe the science,” the less people will trust you. Expecting the public to accept any controversial and impactful proposition on faith is a truly incredible ask. Requesting this with any frequency, or with ultimately less-than-relevant expertise, has done and will do serious harm to the influence of experts.

Harvard is the training ground for a great deal of expertise. It also aspires, I would hope, to train good laymen: citizens who are thoughtful in how they engage with expertise they can’t replicate. By adopting a more principled approach, we as students can do our part to build back Americans’ trust in experts. We can contribute, in some small way, to the cause of giving our divided country a shared set of facts.

Aurash Z. Vatan ’23, an Associate Editorial editor, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Mather House.