22 Oct 2021

A pundit backlash against actual experts

From Mediawatch, 1:30 pm on 22 October 2021

Analysis - Our epidemiologists and Covid modellers have faced an increasingly bitter series of barbs from commentators and columnists lately and it's making their often thankless task even harder.

Microbiologist Siousxie Wiles and epidemiologist Michael Baker.

Photo: RNZ / Supplied

The 19 months of this pandemic have been fractious for the media. It’s been hard for our most prominent commentators to agree on anything, whether it’s the need to lock down, open up, deliver quick economic intervention or hold our nerve against calls for economic intervention.  

Lately though, many of our pundits have aligned against a common enemy. Not Covid-19, which they’re in favour of accommodating to a greater extent. Instead they’ve formed a joint front against the epidemiologists who keep warning about the grave dangers posed by Covid-19.

It started last month, when the Herald’s business editor Fran O’Sullivan accidentally tweeted what was meant to be a private message to Covid modeller Rodney Jones, thanking him for a “well-timed article” and calling out the government for relying on “bogus modellers like Hendy”.

O’Sullivan apologised the next day.

But anti-expert views have surfaced again over the last week or so.

Over at Stuff, political editor Luke Malpass argued that it’s time to start looking beyond what he called the “epidemiological echo chamber”

“You can’t keep people locked down indefinitely, even if it were desirable – which it clearly isn’t,” he wrote, in a searing critique of a course of action no epidemiologist is currently calling for.

That was comparatively tame. At Newstalk ZB, early morning host Kate Hawkesby stepped up the criticism in an on-air monologue putting epidemiologist Rod Jackson and microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles on blast for “freaking out” over the pandemic which has killed five million people globally.

“Normality is calling,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, in going hard and early on the fear mongering, and in pursuing it for so long, there’s still a large chunk of New Zealanders trapped inside the fear and unable to get out. The epidemiologists - given so much airtime and limelight throughout this pandemic, risk becoming increasingly obsolete and irrelevant.”

That was still nothing compared to what Bill Ralston wrote in his regular column originally published by The Listener, and republished by the Herald.

Following a call for harsher penalties on the vaccine resistant, he said it could also be time to “lock up the epidemiologists, microbiologists and Covid modellers who continually sound like prophets of doom”. Their crime: creating a climate of “fear and depression”. 

It’s easy to imagine why many pundits don't love our current tendency to ask epidemiologists for advice. If we start insisting on listening to people who are experts in their subject matter, it presents an existential risk to their entire field.

The commentators are also clearly frustrated at the Michael Bakers and Shaun Hendys of the world for failing to get on board our trip toward the freedom of a mostly vaccinated summer. 

But as it turns out, fear and depression may be a completely rational response to our current Covid trajectory. 

Auckland recorded 94 Covid-19 cases on Monday and 102 yesterday, tracking neatly with the more pessimistic paths laid out by the so-called “prophets of doom”.

Overseas, countries which have embraced freedom have found it comes at enormous cost.

Newstalk ZB UK correspondent Gavin Grey made that clear yesterday, delivering a sobering reality check to opening up advocates like Kate Hawkesby during his on-air chat with Kate Hawkesby.

His update on post-Freedom Day Britain revealed that following the beckoning call of normality has resulted in roughly 50,000 Covid-19 cases per day and 800 deaths per week in the country, along with creating a new, more infectious strain of the Delta variant. 

The country is looking at reimposing restrictions, Grey said.

“Oh that’s so depressing. Here we are still dealing with Delta in our neck of the woods. What about Russia suspending its diplomatic mission to Nato?” replied Hawkesby.

It’s possible our epidemiologists, modellers, and other experts are sounding so negative, not because they love fear and depression, but because it’s an intellectually credible response to a virus which continues to kill thousands of people per day, while causing large amounts of long-term sickness and economic damage.

In other fields, having nearly every specialist singing from the same song sheet would be seen a good thing. If 99% of cancer specialists think a chemo drug was safe, people will be more confident in taking it than if that figure was 40%. 

In the case of our Covid experts, it's seen them labelled an “echo chamber” or “Greek chorus”. 

That has been difficult to swallow. Kate Hannah, a principal investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini, noted the Herald has previously covered the waves of abuse experienced by our most public Covid experts, presumably in a disapproving way. Ralston's column helped normalise that abuse, she said.

Maybe our epidemiologists and modellers' messages haven't been to the liking of our political commentators. They certainly haven't always been popular with everyone. But following them has led us to record among the fewest deaths, and highest levels of freedom over the last 20 months, as measured by the Oxford Stringency Index.

Even if that doesn’t earn our experts automatic respect and adulation, they've at least earned the right to fewer pejoratives from their media critics.