The experts speak

Science writer Carl Zimmer in the NYT yesterday, in the middle of “As Ebola Spreads, So Have Several Fallacies”:

Recently on “Fox News Sunday,” the political commentator George F. Will said, “There are now doctors who are saying, ‘We’re not so sure that it can’t be in some instances transmitted by airborne.’ ”

When another guest on the show started to explain that experts have said this is not true, Mr. Will interrupted to say, “Every expert that you’ve seen. Here we go again.”

A familiar rhetorical move, in which “experts” (or “authorities” or “scientists”) are disparaged as sources of information, on the grounds that they are just one source of information among many, and that all these sources are just matters of opinion, each as valid as any other (for instance, the opinions of political commentators).

Frequently, these disparagements are backed up by the claim that “experts”, “authorities”, and “scientists” are in fact biased sources of information, because these people have a personal stake in the matter: their reputations, positions, income, and so on hinge on what they do. (I recall the days of the wars over smoking, when representatives of the tobacco industry attacked the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association in just these terms, as “special interests”.)

I’m familiar with the disparagement of “experts” etc. (especially linguists and lexicographers) in discussions of usage, where it’s vexing that so many people assume that all opinions on usage are equally valid, and that the work of professionals should in fact be dismissed because it’s biased. In many contexts, not a lot hinges on the outcomes of these confrontations, though many of us have pointed out that the rejection of expert information about language can have grave consequences in some contexts, especially in education.

But when we’re dealing with matters of life and death (as in responses to Ebola), the stakes are immediately and urgently higher. I won’t try to assess George Will’s motives here, but he is disparaging statements of fact (as far as this is known) in favor of fallacious rumors, and that, I think, is just wicked. (Don’t get me started on Bobby Jindal.)

One Response to “The experts speak”

  1. Andy Says:

    Ebola has been observed to spread between monkeys in different cages, and even between rooms in a building, with no physical contact. This was documented in the Reston case. (the Hot Zone, by Richard Preston) It is also standard protocol to keep unprotected people at least 6 feet away from an ebola patient, because droplets of whatever can and do travel, and droplets do contain virus particles. Those are facts. To say, as the other commentator did, that this is not “airborne” transmission, is misleading.

    In my opinion, your political bias against Mr. Will is the point of this post, and not anything he said. You have become the biased expert.

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