Thanks to coronavirus, experts are back in fashion. But we must choose our experts wisely

I have commented before about the fact that not all opinions carry equal weight. I said as much here, but I also made the point here (by way of Spurgeon) too. But if ever those comments were true, it is surely now. As the coronavirus is sweeping across the world, recognised now to be an international pandemic, the last thing we need is armchair “experts” interpreting the “facts” from their lofty perch of having read a few newspaper reports and heard a few people chatting about it down the pub!

Who could possibly be acting like that under such serious circumstances? Contender number 1 – and about as unsurprising as the realisation that the Pope is, indeed, a Catholic – comes Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain:

Somewhat more surprising, contender number 2 is Caprice. That is, that model who was big in the 90s and early 00s, Caprice. Here she is sounding off on the Jeremy Vine programme sat opposite someone who is qualified to comment vehemently disagreeing with her:

With the greatest of respect to my friends who are doctors and physiologists, even they are not ultimately qualified to comment on the public health response to this matter. They are trained to understand the human body and may rightly be able to diagnose the issue, and treat it when it arises, should they encounter it. Knowing how the body works does not, of itself, tell you what the public health response should be. Even virologists, who are far better placed to know about the specifics of viruses and how they transfer, are not fully equipped to make the call. Mathmaticians and statisticians crunching numbers alone aren’t well placed to know what the specific public health response should be. None of these folks are epidemiologists, who are the only people properly qualified to assess all the data and give us credible instructions as to how be we ought to respond.

Yet, my twitter timeline and facebook feed seems full of people who know for definite what is going on. Lots of those people are neither epidemiologists, or even doctors. I’ve seen folks land hard on the fact that they work in the NHS, failing to recognise that managers and accountants are even less epidemiologists than my GP! They may be one step closer to knowing the score than Caprice, but it’s rather like them insisting they are a bit further ahead than me in our competition to see who can jump to the moon! You might know a bit more than a random guy on the bus, but you don’t definitively (or even, broadly) know. Just as I, also, don’t know.

The issue here isn’t about what we do or don’t know. There are lots of things that I don’t know (including, off the top of my own head, how we as a nation ought best to respond to the coronavirus). And there is no shame in that because nobody is going to know everything with perfect knowledge. Given that most of us (if we are prepared to be honest with ourselves), even if we have some insight into bodies and illnesses, simply aren’t in a position to know what is going on, we are very much reliant on others. The question, then, comes down to whether we are listening to people who do know or people who simply think they know.

I, happily, trained exclusively in fields that everyone thinks they know everything about despite any qualification they may or may not hold. I have degrees that cover History, Politics, Religious Studies, Philosophy and Theology. It is rare to meet the person who insists they don’t know much about any of those things and, certainly, doesn’t know as much as you about it. Just as we’re all epidemiologists now, RC Sproul said everyone’s a theologian. Frankly, everybody is also a philosopher and a student of history and politics too. We are either good ones or we’re not. But for those who are a bit more honest, who recognise that they don’t necessarily have a solid grasp of these things, the question is this: am I relying on people who know or simply listening to people who think they know?

This is the question on which things home in when it comes to Jesus Christ. Who is he? Why did he matter? Is he even worth thinking about today? Almost everybody takes their armchair stab at it. I mean, internet memes abound. The question is whether we are listening to people who actually know or we are relying on those who think they know?

The problem is, of course, who knows God? Who has ever seen him? Who can really tell us what he is like? The only person who really knows is surely God himself. Which means that the only way we are going to know him on any level (assuming he is there at all), is if he makes himself known to us. Naturally, I believe that he has done exactly that. But the question is whether we will listen to those who are in any real position to adduce that or if we are going to take our advice from those who merely claim to know.

If the coronavirus, and the many different responses to it, tells us anything it is the importance of making sure that our advice is taken from those best placed to give it to us. As principles go for adducing much else, it’s not a bad one. As public health officials and epidemiologists are currently tearing their hair out with every pseudo-scientist, as well as the many others who are academically trained in an area that ostensibly lends credence to their position but which is ultimately outside of the most relevant field, there is a difference between qualified to speak and nearly qualified to speak. In the same way, the larger questions of life and ultimate meaning – whether God is there and who he might be – might well encourage us all to have an opinion, but we must be sure that whatever view of it we take, it is drawn from those who are credibly qualified to comment.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: rumours of the death of experts has been greatly exaggerated. We just have to be careful exactly which experts we choose to believe.