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Experts Can Be Wrong

August 17th, 2021 by dk

I had a marriage counselor once give me good advice. “Always leave room for the other side to be at least one percent correct.” That habit of mind didn’t make me a better husband, but it made me a better human.

I got my COVID-19 vaccination shots as soon as I could, without hesitation. Most of my friends who have resisted getting vaccinated are concerned about their personal health or freedom. That’s not me. I would rather live in this world considering the greater good before assessing any personal gains.

If I were younger, I might worry more about unknown long-term effects of the Pfizer vaccine. Long-term doesn’t seem as long as it once did. The short-term benefits of reaching herd immunity as quickly as possible outweigh those concerns for me.

I have continued my search for that one percent I can share with anti-vaxxers. Some skepticism and dissent is based on information that can be verified. Most is not. I don’t expect readers to agree with me, but here is one objection I find myself accepting easily: Experts can be wrong, especially when they are nearly unanimous in their opinions.

Almost every expert insists that the vaccines are safe, necessary, and the only solution we need. Not long ago, we had medical reporters who had been on the same beat for decades who would ask hard questions before publishing the popular position. We’ve lost that mostly invisible protective shield against group think. That worries me.

This example doesn’t prove my point, but it illustrates my concern. My doctor recently sent me to a surgeon who specializes in removing an organ that was causing me problems. I had a battery of questions. What causes this condition? Can lifestyle choices reverse it? Will the periodic pain subside over time? Could it kill me?

His answer to each question was the same. “We don’t know.” I should have asked him to define “we” but it’s hard to think clearly when you’re talking with somebody in a lab coat with their name embroidered on it. I’m guessing his “we” referred to other surgeons with the same specialization. Context and causality don’t matter when a scalpel is in your hand. He’s not called until his services are required.

My primary care physician will help me contextualize what the specialist told me. I’ll wait for input from a generalist before making my decision. Knowledge is important but it cannot replace wisdom.

This vaccine technology moved quickly. We’ve heard mostly from specialists. As the information and opinions spread, they often change. Our understanding of climate change has gotten more harrowing as the data are distributed and interpreted more widely.

Modern society conceives of knowledge as hierarchical — a mountainous pyramid of information and analysis. Specialists scale their mountains, seeing only other specialists around them. It takes time for non-specialists to catch up.

Vaccine development and public health are not the best place to apply this rule, but it’s worth asking. Have experts considered all the wider implications? Usually not. That’s really not their job. It’s ours.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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