On Listening to Experts and having your say

Don’t panic …listen to the right people

The internet is not a great place to be at the moment if you struggle with anxiety, nor if you are looking for reliable information and advice. Timelines are full of people sharing their ‘expertise’ on Coronavirus.  Their opinions range from the “We should panic, the Government isn’t doing enough and it is all a conspiracy theory to target the vulnerable and protect our financial markets!” to the “It’s all a conspiracy theory by big government to suppress our freedom. Everyone should rebel by gathering for mass hand holding and hugging events.” Everyone has an opinion.

As Stephen Kneale points out here, most of us are not experts at all on how to respond to COVID -19. 

“With the greatest of respect to my friends who are doctors and physiologists, even they are not ultimately qualified to comment on the public health response to this matter. They are trained to understand the human body and may rightly be able to diagnose the issue, and treat it when it arises, should they encounter it. Knowing how the body works does not, of itself, tell you what the public health response should be. Even virologists, who are far better placed to know about the specifics of viruses and how they transfer, are not fully equipped to make the call. Mathmaticians and statisticians crunching numbers alone aren’t well placed to know what the specific public health response should be. None of these folks are epidemiologists, who are the only people properly qualified to assess all the data and give us credible instructions as to how be we ought to respond.”[1]

We must be careful not to be quick to pontificate our opinions. It is wise not to speak without having access to and understanding of as much of the data available as possible. As Ecclesiastes 10:12-14 says:

“Wise words bring approval, but fools are destroyed by their own words. Fools base their thoughts on foolish assumptions, so their conclusions will be wicked madness; they chatter on and on. No one really knows what is going to happen; no one can predict the future.”

We do well in life to pay attention to those who know what they are talking about and who speak wisely. I would add to that the emphasis that knowledge of a subject area alone is not enough. We need to look to those who exercise wisdom too.

However, it is also helpful to consider another perspective.  Just because someone is not the specialist expert in a particular field does not mean that they have not got wisdom to offer and shouldn’t be listened to.

Nothing to offer?

I note three things.

First of all, people are very quick to say that “the experts have spoken  and that settles things. However, experts do, and will disagree. I played a very minor bit part role in preparing for Y2K. We had to listen to the technical experts but they did not always agree. In my current line of work, I cn read commentaries by three different Evangelical scholars and get three seemingly different views on a difficult text.  The temptation at this stage is to say that if the experts do not agree then any view is valid “my guess is as good as yours.” That’s the wrong response, the experts view still carries greater weight and even as they disagree, there are likely to be agreements about the framework for the conversation and much of their conclusions.

There is however, a gift to be able to hear different specialists give their views and to draw appropriate conclusions. Indeed it is that type of gifting that our Cabinet ministers and civil servants need.

Secondly, I have heard experts put down those who question them with the line “I have x number of PhDs and have read all the relevant material.” In faith related conversations, they will announce their skill in Greek or Hebrew and their mastery of all the wider source documents in their original languages. 

However, I want to suggest that non-field specialists do have something to offer. Let’s come back to the question of COVID-19.  Statisticians are not experts on how pandemics function but they do understand data and modelling. They can spot when models are mishandled or the wrong ones used. 

My own background prior to pastoring was in Manufacturing Engineering and Operations Management.  I know nothing about disease control. However I know about processes and I have a lot of experience in the area of capacity management and scheduling. Why is that relevant? Well, we have a scheduling/capacity management issue here that has similarities to ones we faced at work. There are two ways of managing capacity. The first is to have a push system. The capacity of your factory is fixed and so you carefully schedule in work over a period of time.  You work out the most efficient, cost effective system possible. Work waits until there are enough machines, parts and workers.  In a pull system the workers and machines wait until there is a need. You have to respond to the demand when it comes in.  My work was primarily in the repair business and so we had to work on a pull basis, predicting demand was difficult, a repair could come in at any moment and need turning around in 24 hours if an aircraft was sat on the ground.

A viral pandemic puts us in the same territory as the aviation repair business. The health service is having to respond to a spike in demand. A lot of the measures are aimed at trying to manage that demand, to smooth out the spike so that the NHS is not put under pressure and the demand matches capacity over a period of time. Now, I don’t think they have any other option but what they are basically doing is taking a “pull” situation and trying to manipulate it into a push process so that they can plan demand. I repeat, there isn’t really another option I am aware of. However, I do know that when you attempt to manage demand and capacity in that way, it is imperfect and not without its problems. I am pointing this out not to criticise the approach of WHO, our government or any of the other governments and agencies around the world. Rather, knowing this should give us greater patience and understanding. We live in a world that demands our governments get everything perfectly right. We are consumers who will complain if we are not satisfied. However, life is not like that. 

Finally pastors, politicians, GPs and psychologists are not experts in viruses and pandemics. However they do understand how people behave and respond to situations. They do have an awareness that life is about more than the specific pandemic and that different needs have to be balanced. My refrain over the past few days has been that “there is more than one way to die.” I will come back to that in another post but what it means is that stopping people dying of coronavirus is not our sole responsibility at the moment. 

Thirdly, quite often it is the person who takes a fresh look who spots something everyone else misses. The little boy at the parade was no expert in clothing, fashion or royalty but he was able to spot that the emperor had no clothes on.  We need people like that. In my experience, this comes best with the gentle question. It works best when the expert rather than hiding behind their status is willing humbly and patiently to listen to, engage with and explain to those of us who lack expertise what the evidence shows.


My comments here are very context specific to Coronavirus COVID-19 but have wider application to church life. We should listen to those who have gifting and authority in specific areas but we should also recognise and use all the gifts of the body of Christ in our decision making together.

[1] https://stephenkneale.com/2020/03/17/thank-to-coronavirus-experts-are-back-in-fashion-but-we-must-choose-our-experts-wisely/

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