Coronavirus: the 4 rules of the decision maker for working with experts

The situation has become familiar with the coronavirus, and in particular with the controversy over the possible use of chloroquine: everyone has his opinion, groups are created to defend Professor Raoult or on the contrary to criticize him. Regularly, people are called to order by people who demand that only experts can speak on issues relating to the management of the virus. The message has apparently been heard: For three weeks, doctors have been massively present on television sets. France has become a large medical consultation room by proxy. But the question remains: faced with a complex and unprecedented situation like that of the coronavirus, who has the right to speak? To what extent can we trust the experts? And above all, how can the decision maker work with them?

“Shut up, you are not an expert! Who hasn’t been rebuffed recently trying to discuss one aspect of the current coronavirus crisis? Only experts would be allowed to speak. It seems logical after all: the situation is complex and if everyone puts a grain of salt without knowing anything about it, it will be chaos. Logical yes, but not so simple because the question is much more complicated than that.

Letting the experts speak is typically an argument of authority: rather than discussing the substance, participants are excluded from the discussion on the basis of their expertise. However, this is difficult to defend in a society like ours: allowing citizens to have an informed debate on matters concerning the community was at the heart of the Enlightenment and School of the Republic project. Article 15 of the declaration of human rights also specifies that society has the right to hold any public official in its administration to account.

Expert of what?

Pushed to the absurd, the prior requirement of expertise to have the right to decide on a subject leads to a blockage. Because expert of what ultimately? The emergency doctor is not an epidemiologist, who himself is not a virologist, who himself is neither a nurse, a psychologist nor a statistician. The regression to expertise is endless because no one can be an expert on the whole of a complex problem.

Everyone can only have a small piece of the necessary expertise, and all the less since these complex problems are open, that is to say infinite: it is clear that the coronavirus today affects absolutely all aspects of our life: health of course, but also the economy, morals, supply, relationships within the couple, child management, etc. It therefore takes a multitude of experts on all these subjects to better address it and not all will agree with each other. The desperate tweet of a journalist who had just led a debate with experts who disagreed on anything is entirely characteristic of such a situation.

Not to mention that the expert can also lie, of course, for various reasons. When Jérôme Salomon spends the first few weeks explaining that the generalized wearing of the mask would be useless, he may be trying to avoid a panic by knowing very well that France would not be able to supply the masks if each French were to wear them. This is the famous justification “lying for a good cause”, when the expert leaves his area of ​​expertise to take the place of the political.

The expert is the man of the past

Expertise is even more difficult in the face of an unprecedented event. As underlined by psychologist and uncertainty decision specialist Daniel Kahneman, the two conditions for acquiring expertise are, on the one hand, an environment regular enough to be predictive, and on the other hand, an opportunity to learn patterns. through prolonged practice. This is obviously not possible in the face of an unprecedented event. Expertise is indeed always retrospective; it is based on knowledge of the facts of the past. The expert can say what has been, it is the object of his expertise, but that 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 brazen rule. The reason is that any complex event is at least partly new; no epidemic is like any other, and each therefore has a significant amount of uncertainty. Faced with this uncertainty, expertise is only partially useful, because to use Bertrand de Jouvenel’s expression, in this situation, a proven method is often a thing of the past. During the 2008 crisis, the president of the Fed was Ben Bernanke, As he was a great specialist on the crisis of 1929, we thought that we were in good hands, but it was to forget that the two crises did not had nothing to do. Being an expert in one situation does not guarantee that you are another, even if the two seem very similar.

But above all, an unprecedented situation calls into question mental models, that is to say the deep beliefs about the world, constitutive of our identity. The stronger the expertise, the stronger the identity of the expert, 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. Questioned by a journalist or a decision maker, he must answer, he must  know; saying “I don’t know” is almost impossible. However, medical history, like all other fields, has its share of resistance to innovation. In 1840, Ignaz Semmelweis failed to convince his obstetrician colleagues to wash their hands before giving birth.

Does this mean that all opinions are created equal? Of course not: to use the expression of Isaac Asimov, author of science fiction, democracy does not mean that my ignorance has as much value as your knowledge, and that the interview by Cyril Hanouna of a half worldly on his analysis of the virus has any value other than sociological to understand how morons see the world. But once we have said that, we are hardly advanced, because ingenuity can be of great value in the face of the unprecedented. It 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 proposal because he will not be blocked by the prevalent mental models of the experts of the field. It is the famous expression of Saint Exupéry (I believe) faced with a complicated situation “Bring me a child of five!” “

The expert and decision-making

What do we take from all of this when considering decision-making? The very important limits of expertise in the face of an unprecedented event do not mean that experts are useless, naturally, but that like any good tool, its effective side will depend on the way it is used and on the knowledge of his limits. Based on the above, we can suggest four rules for the decision maker to follow in this situation:

1. It is the decision-maker who decides, not the expert: this is what the emergency physician Patrick Pelloux, perfectly aware of his role, recently recalled, 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 resolving conflicts. It is therefore in the realm of politics. For example, doctors recommend total containment, which would meet their health goal, but it would suffocate the economy, which would cause very serious problems in the short term. Only the decision maker can decide, it is their role.

2. Politicians rely on experts by asking them questions:it is very easy for a decision maker, who is very probably a general practitioner, even a neophyte in the face of the problem under consideration, to be drowned, even wandered by the experts who are all convinced of what to do but who only see part of the problem. The general practitioner’s only weapon against the expert is therefore questioning, and in particular open questioning. The decision maker should not be afraid to ask silly questions, to appear stupid, and must always remember that he will be the only one accountable for the decision, and that at the time of the judgment of the story the expert will have disappeared, or will have changed his mind. So it must be a conversation, a question-and-answer process, where the questions emerge from previous answers and where what the expert does not say can be as important as what he says.

3. The decision is made on the basis of judgment, not calculation: faced with the unprecedented, the decision must be made with what we know at a given time, which often is not much. It cannot therefore result from a calculation. In 2010, Roselyne Bachelot hardly had any objective criteria to decide how much vaccine to buy. If she does not buy enough and the epidemic rages, she will be accused of carelessness. If she buys enough and the epidemic is controlled, no one will notice anything (an accident has never been avoided). If she buys too many and there is no epidemic, like what happened, she is accused of wasting public funds, or even being in the pay of the pharmaceutical lobby. In uncertainty, the decision maker can therefore do nothing else, once the dialogue with the experts is over, than to exercise his judgment, that is to say an appreciationsubjective and circumstantial to form an opinion on what will happen, and prepare for the avenging interview with Élise Lucet.

4. The decision is a creative process, not a choice of pre-existing options: the characteristic of new situations is that they have never been encountered before; the uncertainty which characterizes them therefore requires a creative approach: in a new situation, necessarily a new solution. Everything therefore rests on the way in which 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 regard. Dissatisfied with the single option initially proposed by the military, he formed a group and forced him to find other solutions.

In the end, there is a happy medium between vilifying the experts because they are often mistaken and following them blindly by refraining from asking questions. The expert is a stakeholder in the decisions that must be made, but it is important to understand the limits of expertise, to develop in a way sociology of knowledge to use it in the best way in order to bring out creative solutions. to the unprecedented problems facing us in the present circumstances.

Joshua Cooper

%d bloggers like this: