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COVID-19 and Respecting Expertise When It's Most Crucial

COVID-19 and Respecting Expertise When It's Most Crucial

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NOTE: This article first appeared at In Public Safety.

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University

Amidst the recent coronavirus pandemic and the chaos precipitating from it, it’s understandable that people are anxious. COVID-19 seems to be carrying a roughly two percent mortality rate, which means that about one in every 50 infected people will die from it.

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Furthermore, while it was originally observed to be most threatening to older demographics and to populations with pre-existing conditions, it now appears that it poses higher risks to younger people than originally anticipated. As of the time of this article’s writing, the United States has more than 100,000 cases, with nearly 2,000 people succumbing to the disease.

COVID-19 Has Had a Major Impact on the Economy

On top of the illness itself, COVID-19’s emergence and the required response to it have crippled the economy in a number of ways. The stock market took a huge dive and currently shows little sign of a speedy recovery.

Similarly, jobless numbers are spiking due to business closures nationwide, and some analysts expect that the unemployment rate might climb as high as 30 percent before it’s over. And for some strange reason, toilet paper is virtually impossible to find as Americans are frantically hoarding it for inexplicable reasons.

Some People Downplay COVID-19 Pandemic Problems

If ever there were a time to heed expertise of professionals, surely this is it. And yet, I find myself astonished by the divergence from professional medical advice in the wake of this public health crisis.

Some folks seem to perpetually insist that doctors and epidemiologists are dramatizing and exaggerating the threat from the coronavirus. They maintain that this COVID-19 pandemic is no big deal.

For instance, some people compare COVID-19 to the flu or another disease that is more familiar to us. They use skewed statistics to convince themselves—and anyone else who will listen—that this pandemic is not that serious.

Others argue that damage to the economy will be worse in the long run than a few unfortunate deaths from this obscure virus. Still others argue that COVID-19 is not likely to be life-threatening for younger people, so there’s no need for those populations to take any precautions. Indeed, these folks have concocted a wide variety of pseudo-scientific platitudes for dismissing the severity of the COVID-19 threat.

Other People Have Become Paranoid, Hoarding Supplies

On the other side of this issue are those who are responsible for the disappearance of all the nation’s toilet paper. An overabundance of caution has led to paranoia; some people have begun stockpiling emergency supplies and preparing for an apocalypse that no serious medical professional has predicted.

Others have chosen to hoard precious medical protective equipment, such as gloves and masks. These items are in tragically short supply within the hospitals currently struggling to stay ahead of infection rates in major metropolitan areas.

Irrational Thinking Has Come from People of All Educational Levels

These types of irrational and counterproductive thinking—on both sides—might be expected from less-educated or less-intelligent people. In an earlier article series, I wrote about the Dunning-Kruger effect and how people lacking in intellect tend to grossly overestimate the profundity of their own opinions.

Sadly, though, these defiant perspectives on COVID-19 are not just coming from ignorant people. They’re also coming from lawyers, engineers, accountants, and other professionals. Otherwise astute members of society are rejecting the assessments of medical experts and betting the farm on their own intuitions about COVID-19.

But why is this happening?

For many professionals, ascension to the level of expertise in a given discipline inspires a sense of humility. Walking that long path to the pinnacle of knowledge in a subject commonly instills a profound respect for the time and effort that it takes to achieve that level of mastery. Consequently, true scholars are often quick to defer to the expertise of others in areas where they have none.

True Experts Know When to Admit Their Lack of Expertise

Sadly, though, some who master a particular skill or body of knowledge seem to reap from the experience a sense that, if their perspective is credible in their own field, it must be credible in other fields as well. The idea is that smart people ought to be smart people in every context.

As a result, these intellectuals are quick to raise their hands, proudly proclaiming that they have an opinion worth hearing on topics in which they are clearly out of their depth. In this case, the topic happens to be COVID-19.

But here’s the thing. Part of truly being an expert in one’s discipline(s) means recognizing and acknowledging the areas in which one is not an expert. I, for example, have extensive experience and expertise in law, hospitality management, and one or two other related disciplines.

But I am absolutely, unequivocally not an epidemiologist. I am not a virologist or a biologist. I’m not a medical doctor or a nurse.

In short, I have precisely zero experience, education or expertise on the subject of pandemics and public health crises. And so I argue that the only prudent thing for someone in my position to do is shut up and heed the advice of those who do have expertise in these areas.

Not Abiding by Well-Informed Opinions during This Crisis Poses Health Hazards

In a free country, you have the right to any opinion you want on the coronavirus pandemic. But if your opinion isn’t well-informed, you pose a danger to others.

First, if you’re in the group of folks who doubt the seriousness of COVID-19, your reckless behaviors—such as failing to abide by social distancing and hygiene guidelines—increase the risk of infection for others. If you’re in the group who overreacts, your paranoia could prevent coronavirus victims from receiving the lifesaving care they urgently need.

And second, in either case, your rejection of sound medical advice poses risks to others in society who might follow you if you advertise your bad ideas to an audience. It is therefore incumbent upon you to recognize when you don’t know what you’re talking about and resist the temptation to offer your two cents where it doesn’t belong.

Those with Power and Social Influence Must Be Especially Careful What They Communicate

This need to refrain from offering uninformed perspectives is true for each and every person in a society, but especially so for those in positions of social power and influence over others. So as our society wrestles with one of the most difficult global health crises we’ve ever seen, please consider the following thought experiment.

If you are a professional or have expertise in any field, imagine a layperson walks into your office or place of business tomorrow, proclaims that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and insists that they can do your job better than you. Consider how ignorant and arrogant you’d perceive such a layperson to be for making such statements. Consider how ignorant and arrogant such a layperson would actually be for making such statements.

Then, return to reality and reflect on the coronavirus pandemic. Ask yourself: Am I an epidemiologist? Am I a medical professional with training or education that is at all relevant to this situation?

If your answer is “no,” then it is my strongest recommendation that you suppress the urge to follow your uninformed intuitions and respect the wisdom of those who are. The stakes could not be higher.

Oh, and please, wash your hands.

expertiseAbout the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.