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Trust, but verify

Summary:
Yes, that’s a sort of oxymoron.  So let me put it this way.  Put more weight on an expert’s opinion than a non-expert’s opinion.  But also evaluate the soundness of the arguments used by experts; don’t accept them uncritically. A recent article at Yahoo followed a predictable path, pointing out how a low income Florida county is full of lots of obese people who refuse to get vaccinated.  The reporter has great sympathy for the overworked health care workers in their underfunded medical facilities.  Then the article took a surprising turn: On Wednesday morning, chief nurse Paige Tolley received a call from the clinic across the street, where Davis works, about rising COVID-19 cases. “Are y’all seeing multiple daily, too?” Tolley said on the phone. “Keep sending them

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Yes, that’s a sort of oxymoron.  So let me put it this way.  Put more weight on an expert’s opinion than a non-expert’s opinion.  But also evaluate the soundness of the arguments used by experts; don’t accept them uncritically.

A recent article at Yahoo followed a predictable path, pointing out how a low income Florida county is full of lots of obese people who refuse to get vaccinated.  The reporter has great sympathy for the overworked health care workers in their underfunded medical facilities.  Then the article took a surprising turn:

On Wednesday morning, chief nurse Paige Tolley received a call from the clinic across the street, where Davis works, about rising COVID-19 cases.

“Are y’all seeing multiple daily, too?” Tolley said on the phone. “Keep sending them if y’all need to. We’ll be here.”

Tolley said cases have “really picked up in the past couple weeks,” mostly among unvaccinated people.

“I hate to see the infection rate like it is,” she said.

She and her staff print information on the vaccine from the CDC to give to patients. She encourages them, especially those with health conditions, to get vaccinated “if they think it’s the right thing to do.”

She empathizes with those who refuse. “I’m not going to push anything on anybody,” said Tolley, who hasn’t been vaccinated.

“I don’t know what the virus would do to me, I don’t know how it would affect me, because everybody’s different,” she said. “I also don’t know what the vaccine would do.”

Her coworker, risk control nurse Janna Martin, a mother of three, also hasn’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. She’s afraid of unforeseen fertility ramifications. While experts say such claims are unfounded, Martin said her doctor suggested she hold off.  [emphasis added]

And this:

Martina said his wife, a nurse for 14 years, told him the vaccines hadn’t been studied enough. “She hasn’t taken it either.”

Those who say that I should “stay in my lane” and trust people with training in health care (something I lack), would presumably say that I should defer to the expertise of doctors and nurses.  Indeed in the comment section of my two blogs I am frequently chastised for offering opinions on issues outside of my area of expertise.  But while I’m not a medical professional, I don’t find the arguments used by the people quoted in the article to be at all persuasive.

I do believe that expertise is a plus, other things equal.  But you also need to consider whether the expert’s reasoning process sounds persuasive.  We know that even experts (including economists) are prone to making basic cognitive errors.  When doctors were asked a question that required Bayesian reasoning regarding disease probabilities, many of the doctors made an elementary error.

One might argue that ordinary doctors and nurses are not the relevant “experts”, and that we should instead look to the FDA or CDC.  But that approach also has its drawbacks, as government officials may feel pressured to offer not the view that they believe is most likely to be true, rather the view that can be justified based on pre-existing and possibly inappropriate criteria.  Are they engaged in sound cost/benefit analysis? (I.e., for society, not for their own career.)

Tolley said she knows the pros and cons of the vaccines authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration but considers them “just experimental right now.”

She’s right!  The FDA does consider it “just experimental right now”.

Here’s another case where an economist disagrees with the experts at the FDA:

Trust, but verify

Personally, I’m included to agree with Dube.  That’s not because I think I know more about vaccines than the people at the FDA, rather it is because the FDA is not offering sound logical reasoning for its policy stance.  I suspect that many of them privately agree with Dube, but don’t feel free to state that opinion publicly.

Recently I heard a public health expert on NPR.  I don’t recall the exact details, but much of the interview consisted of the expert basically saying “Option X is almost certainly best and will likely be approved soon, but for now were are recommending option Y.”  And this was not just on one specific issue; he was making this argument repeatedly in response to several of the interviewer’s questions.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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