What does it mean to be an expert?

During a pandemic, it’s important to listen to experts and ignore uninformed opinion.

It’s always important to heed the experts, of course, but pandemics have a habit of drawing dodgy information out of the shadows. (Don’t rely on me for this; read Camus’ La Peste and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year.)

So how to identify who is expert and who is lay on a given subject?

1 Journalists are not experts. Any information provided by a journalist has been filtered in some way, even if the journalist has spoken to experts in researching their piece.

To make the text readable, the writer uses non-technical vocabulary, metaphor, and simile, which are inherently inexact.

How far can you stray from the science in order to make the message understood? Not far. It’s easy to make mistakes. (How do I know this? I’m currently working with experts on various technical papers on aspects of SARS-CoV-2; it’s very easy to get it slightly wrong.)

2 An expert is likely to be narrowly, not broadly expert. A ‘public health expert’ may know about obesity, but not infectious diseases.

3 The facts are always incomplete. But an expert will always give you the confidence intervals on their data.