One great thing about society’s reservoir of expertise that is housed in universities and colleges is that when an important new subject turns up, at least some of these experts will be able to respond to the crisis with research and insight. But this process of pivoting to the hot topic has a downside, too. For an especially hot topic, like the COVID pandemic, those who are experts in something altogether different may suddenly start delve into a new area–and the results will not always be pretty.

One vivid example of this dynamic that has stuck in my mind happened when I was based out at Stanford University in the early 1990s and Mikhail Gorbachev came to visit. Gorbachev was president of the Soviet Union at the time, and he was following a policy of “glasnost” in which the USSR would encourage greater openness and transparency, including criticism of the government. My memory is that prominent economists were practically jousting in the hallways for the possibility of sitting at a table with Gorbachev, so that they could give him their invaluable feedback. Of course, many of these economists had made their reputations in other areas, and as far as I could tell knew essentially nothing about the realities of the Soviet economy or political system.

The COVID pandemic has enticed a wave of experts to enter the public health arena. John P.A. Ioannidis describes the results in “How the Pandemic Is Changing the Norms of Science,” with the subtitle “Imperatives like skepticism and disinterestedness are being junked to fuel political warfare that has nothing in common with scientific methodology (Tablet magazine, September 8, 2021). For those who don’t know author’s name, the bio line in the article says: “John P.A. Ioannidis is Professor of Medicine and Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health, as well as Professor (by courtesy) of Biomedical Science and Statistics, at Stanford University.” He writes:

The pandemic led seemingly overnight to a scary new form of scientific universalism. Everyone did COVID-19 science or commented on it. By August 2021, 330,000 scientific papers were published on COVID-19, involving roughly a million different authors. An analysis showed that scientists from every single one of the 174 disciplines that comprise what we know as science has published on COVID-19. By the end of 2020, only automobile engineering didn’t have scientists publishing on COVID-19. By early 2021, the automobile engineers had their say, too.

At first sight, this was an unprecedented mobilization of interdisciplinary talent. However, most of this work was of low quality, often wrong, and sometimes highly misleading. Many people without subject-matter technical expertise became experts overnight, emphatically saving the world. As these spurious experts multiplied, evidence-based approaches—like randomized trials and collection of more accurate, unbiased data—were frequently dismissed as inappropriate, too slow, and harmful. The disdain for reliable study designs was even celebrated.

Many amazing scientists have worked on COVID-19. I admire their work. Their contributions have taught us so much. My gratitude extends to the many extremely talented and well-trained young investigators who rejuvenate our aging scientific workforce. However, alongside thousands of solid scientists came freshly minted experts with questionable, irrelevant, or nonexistent credentials and questionable, irrelevant, or nonexistent data. Social and mainstream media have helped to manufacture this new breed of experts. 

Ioannides is pointing here to a recent working paper, “The rapid, massive growth of COVID-19 authors in the scientific literature,” which he co-authored with Maia Salholz-Hillel, Kevin W. Boyack, and Jeroen Baas (posted at the bioRxiv archive on August 21, 2021). The abstract reads (in part):

The growth of COVID-19 authors was far more rapid and massive compared with cohorts of authors historically publishing on H1N1, Zika, Ebola, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. All 174 scientific subfields had some specialists who had published on COVID-19. In 109 of the 174 subfields of science, at least one in ten active, influential (top-2% composite citation indicator) authors in the subfield had authored something on COVID-19. 52 hyper-prolific authors had already at least 60 (and up to 227) COVID-19 publications each.

In the Tablet essay, Ioannides recites the recognized fundamental norms of scientific inquiry: “communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism.” In contrast, he argues, the process of scientific inquiry during the pandemic has often been polluted (not just in the US but around the world) by unwillingness to share data, or to be systematically skeptical and disinterested. One result is to injure public health efforts: “Politics dressed up as public health not only injured science. It also shot down participatory public health where people are empowered, rather than obligated and humiliated.”

It’s a great thing that so many academics have wanted to apply their expertise to the COVID pandemic. But I also find myself wondering if the world might have been a better place if some of those academics had stuck with their previous tasks, sharpening their expertise for a time and topic when it would apply more directly.