Coronavirus: Four Rules for the Decision-Maker to Work with Experts in the Face of an Unprecedented Event

[Version française disponible ici]

The situation has become familiar with the coronavirus, and in particular with the controversy over the use of chloroquine: everyone has an opinion and groups are being formed in favor or against it. Yet regularly, people are being called to order by others who demand that only experts should be allowed to talk on issues relating to the management of the epidemy. The message seems to have been heard: for the past three weeks, doctors have been massively present on television sets. The country has become a large proxy medical consultation room. But the question remains: faced with a complex and unprecedented situation such as the coronavirus, who has the right to speak out? To what extent can experts be trusted? More importantly, how can the decision-maker work with them?

“Shut up, you’re not an expert! “Who hasn’t recently been rebuffed for trying to discuss an aspect of the current coronavirus crisis? Only experts would be allowed to speak. It makes sense, after all, because the situation is complex, and if everyone puts their finger on it and they don’t know anything about it, it’s going to be chaos. Logical, yes, but not so simple, because the issue is much more complicated than that.

Only allowing the experts to speak is typically an authoritative argument: rather than discussing the substance, participants are excluded from the discussion on the basis of who they are. This is hardly defensible in a free society like ours: allowing citizens to have an informed debate on subjects concerning the community was at the heart of the Enlightenment starting in the XVIIIth century. Article 15 of the Declaration of Human Rights also specifies that Society has the right to hold any public official accountable for his or her administration.

Expert of what?

In itself, the requirement of expertise to have the right to speak on a subject leads to a blockage. Because expert in what, after all? The emergency doctor is not an epidemiologist, who in turn is not a virologist, who in turn is neither a nurse nor a psychologist nor a statistician nor an economist. The regression to expertise is infinite because no one can be an expert on the totality of a complex problem. At best, someone can only have a small piece of the necessary expertise, and all the more so as these complex problems are open, that is to say infinite: it is clear that the coronavirus today affects absolutely all aspects of our lives: health of course, but also economics, morals, food, relationships within the couple, child management, etc. We therefore need a multitude of experts on all these subjects in order to better address it, and not all of them will agree with each other. The recent desperate tweet from a journalist who had just moderated a debate with experts who did not agree on anything among them is quite typical of such a situation.

If I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I said (Attributed to A. Greenspan; Picture: Wikipedia)

To add to the difficulty, expert may also lie, for a variety of reasons. When French head of health Dr. Jerome Salomon spent the first few weeks of the epidemic explaining that the generalized wearing of masks would be useless, he may have been trying to avoid a panic, knowing full well that France would not be able to provide the masks if every Frenchman had to wear them. This is the famous “lying for a good cause” justification, when the expert goes out of his field of expertise to take the place of the politician, sometimes with terrible consequences, such as destruction of trust.

The expert is a person of the past

Expertise is even more difficult in the face of an unprecedented event. As psychologist and specialist of decision making in uncertainty Daniel Kahneman points out, the two conditions for acquiring an expertise are, on the one hand, a sufficiently regular environment to be predictive, and on the other hand, an opportunity to learn regularities through prolonged practice. This is obviously not possible in the face of an unprecedented event. Expertise is always retrospective; it is based on the knowledge of past events. The expert can say what has been, that is the object of his/her expertise, but this does not mean that he is able to tell us what will be, for the simple reason that there is no natural link between what has been and what will be. History is full of experts who have made erroneous predictions by forgetting this iron rule. The reason is that every complex event is at least in part novel; no epidemic is like any other, and therefore each has a significant degree of uncertainty. In the face of this uncertainty, expertise is only partially useful, because, to use the futurologist Bertrand de Jouvenel’s expression, in this situation, a proven method is often a tried and tested method, i.e. a method of the past. During the 2008 crisis, the president of the Fed was Ben Bernanke. As he was a specialist of the 1929 crisis, we thought we were in good hands, but we forgot that the two crises had nothing to do with each other. Being an expert on one situation does not guarantee that you are an expert on another, even if the two seem very similar. This similarity can be very misleading, with catastrophic consequences, because it is often the differences that matter, not the similarity.

But above all, a new situation calls into question mental models, that is to say, the deep beliefs about the world that make up our identity. The stronger the expertise, the stronger the expert identity is felt, and the more difficult it is to question these models. In a way, the expert has invested so much in his model that the emotional and psychological cost of giving it up is very high. When asked by a journalist or decision-maker, an answer must be provided; saying “I don’t know” is almost impossible. However, medical history, like all fields, has its share of resistance to innovation. In 1840, Ignaz Semmelweis failed to convince his fellow expert obstetricians to wash their hands before giving birth.

Does this mean that all opinions are equal? Of course not: as Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer, put it, democracy does not mean that my ignorance is as valuable as your knowledge, and that a TV host’s interview with a third rate singer to inquire about his view of the virus management is of any value other than sociological to understand how morons see the world. But once you’ve said that, you’re not much further ahead, because ingenuity can be of great value in the face of the unprecedented. This is the famous legend of the King is Naked: an ingenuous, a non-specialist, someone who is outside the field, will sometimes be able to make an original proposition because he or she will not be blocked by the prevailing mental models of the experts in the field. Ignorance is bliss as they say.

The Expert and the Decision Maker
What do we take away from all this when we consider decision-making? The very important limitations of expertise in the face of a new event does not mean that experts are of no use, of course, but that like any good tool, its effectiveness will depend on how it is used and knowledge of its limitations. On the basis of the above, we can suggest four rules to be followed by the decision-maker in this situation:

1. It is the decision-maker who decides, not the expert: this is what French EMS doctor Patrick Pelloux recently reminded us, perfectly aware of his role, which is rare for an expert. The role of the decision-maker is to embrace the problem in its entirety, to have a strategic vision, while the experts remain at the tactical level, in their field. The decision is not the sum of tactical decisions, but an aggregation, which requires conflict resolution. It is therefore in the realm of politics. For example, doctors recommend total confinement, which would satisfy their health objective (or so they believe), but it would asphyxiate the economy, which would create very serious problems in the short term. Only the decision-maker can decide, that’s his/her role.

2. The decision maker relies on the experts by asking them questions: It is very easy for a decision-maker, who is most likely a generalist or even a neophyte to the problem in question, to be drowned out or even taken for a ride by the experts, who are all convinced they know what to do but see only part of the problem. The only weapon of the generalist against the expert is therefore questioning, and in particular open questioning. The decision-maker must not be afraid to ask what may seem like stupid questions, even to appear stupid, and must always remember that he alone will be accountable for the decision, and that by the time the story is judged, the experts will have disappeared, or will have changed their mind. It must therefore be a conversation, a question-answer process, where questions emerge from previous answers and where what experts do not say may be as important as what they say.

3. The decision is made on the basis of judgement, not calculation: In the face of the unprecedented event, the decision must be made with what is known at a given moment, which is often not much. It cannot therefore be the result of a calculation. In 2010, French health minister Roselyne Bachelot had few objective criteria for deciding how many doses of vaccine to buy. If she didn’t buy enough and the epidemic became widespread, she would be accused of negligence. If she bought enough and the epidemic could be controlled, it would be a non-event. If she bought too much and the epidemic did not spread, as has happened, she would be accused of wasting public funds, or even of being in the pay of the pharmaceutical lobby. In a state of uncertainty, decision-makers can therefore do nothing more, once the dialogue with the experts is over, than to exercise their judgment, i.e. a subjective and circumstantial assessment that will enable them to form an opinion on what is going to happen, and to prepare for the interview with a vengeful journalist once it’s all over.

4. Decision-making is a creative process, not a choice of pre-existing options: The uncertainty that characterizes unprecedented situations requires a creative approach: a new situation requires a new solution. It is therefore all about how the decision-maker will allow this creative process to take place within the decision-making apparatus. President Kennedy’s attitude during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis is a model in this respect. Dissatisfied with the single option initially proposed by the military, he formed an ad-hoc group and forced it to find other solutions.

In the end, there is a fine line between vilifying the experts because they are often wrong and blindly following them by not asking questions. The expert is an essential stakeholder in the decisions that have to be made, but it is important to understand the limits of expertise; to develop a kind of sociology of knowledge to use it to best advantage in order to bring out creative solutions to the new problems that confront us in the present circumstances.

To read more about decision making in uncertainty, read my articles: Responding to the Coronavirus Crisis: Three Courses of Action for a CEO. as well as: The Four Things that the Coronavirus Reminds Us About Decision Making in Uncertainty. On the importance of mental models in decision making in the face of unprecedented events, read: The Coronavirus: How Crises Disrupt our Mental Models and What That Means.

One response to “Coronavirus: Four Rules for the Decision-Maker to Work with Experts in the Face of an Unprecedented Event

  1. Pingback: Coronavirus: Face à l’événement inédit, les 4 règles du décideur pour travailler avec les experts | Philippe Silberzahn

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