• Updated
02 June 2022

Why Trust Dr. Raoult?

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the challenges of assessing expertise. In a situation of great uncertainty, where contrary opinions circulate daily amongst scientists and in the media, where the stakes for public health are so high, who can be trusted? Who are the experts? How do we reason and judge their reliability? The article "Why Trust Raoult? How Social Indicators Inform the Reputations of Experts", published in Social Epistemology, looks at how people evaluate expertise and come to decide which experts to trust. This article uses the hydroxychloroquine recommendation of French microbiologist Dr. Didier Raoult as a case study to show how assessing expertise is a complex endeavour combining epistemic and social skills.

Interview with Teresa Branch, philosopher of science at the Institut Jean Nicod and first author of the publication.

The need of experts to help novices understand the world

Teresa Branch describes an expert as an individual who has enough knowledge of a subject to not only understand it, but also contribute or expand knowledge of the subject”. Experts are therefore useful because they can provide specialised knowledge. But we rely on more than just experts. As individuals, it is impossible to have the time, talent and resources to investigate and verify everything we believe...“Imagine someone who adores riding their bike. They have been riding the same bike for years, know how it handles around corners, when in squeaks and when it needs repair. This person may have some knowledge of bikes from doing repairs on their own, but for more complicated repairs, they may have to search out someone who knows more, like a bike mechanic. A bike mechanic is likely to be able to fix a broader array of problems because they have acquired a wider and deeper breath of knowledge about bikes. For instance, optimal gear ratios, how these vary between makes and so on”. This just shows that even novices can have some knowledge of the subject material, but at some point, their knowledge is limited.

But even experts cannot know everything, and nobody is an expert in everything. Teresa Branch continues, “Even the best bike mechanic cannot know every detail for every bike model, and so they must occasionally consult their colleagues or an even larger community who have different knowledge and additional expertise. For example, imagine that someone with an electric bike enters the bike mechanic’s shop.  If the bike mechanic is only an expert in manual bikes, they may be able to fix some problems with the electric bike, but they are likely less knowledgeable about electric bikes compared to an electric bike mechanic. Realising when to consult someone else challenges us as experts and novices to reflect on the limits of our expertise and how it varies from subject to subject.”

Expertise is indeed pluralistic. There are different types of experts, who may be formally trained or acquire expertise in a more informal way, but there are also different forms of expertise: “Some experts have ‘tacit knowledge’ that comes from being a part of an epistemic community, learning their practices and training in the methods of the discipline. Other experts can have ‘interactional expertise’ - or the ability to speak the language of a discipline without the corresponding ability to practice”.

Scientists have expertise in the natural world and the empirical methods used to study it. “They usually gain their expertise from formal training and practice. This expertise takes years, if not decades to acquire, and is often standardised in some ways by the scientific community. Because science is the most reliable provider of information about the natural world, and scientists are seen to do science not only for their sake, but also for the broader society which supports their research, they are regularly rated among those who we trust the most” explains Teresa Branch.

Public and experts: a question of trust

Depending on experts to understand the world around us means taking some of what they say for granted, but does this mean we have to trust them? In the aforementioned example, does the bike owner trust the bike mechanic? Or does the bike owner merely rely on the bike mechanic? Is there a difference? “Well, philosophers —especially social epistemologists who study the way people come to know things— think there is an important difference, explains Teresa Branch. Scholars have argued that there are moral and emotional dimensions to trust that are not present in reliance. This is why, when someone you place your trust in fails to do what they are trusted to do, it is often accompanied by a sense of betrayal and deception. Whereas, if you only relied on them to do something, you feel disappointment or regret, but not betrayal”.

But how do we choose who we can trust? How does the public determine the trustworthiness of an expert? Teresa Branch and her colleagues looked at the particularly interesting case of Dr. Didier Raoult, investigating why many people trusted the treatment recommendations for COVID-19 initially provided by the microbiologist (i.e. hydroxychloroquine), despite the eventual evidence suggesting that this treatment was unreliable. For Teresa Branch and colleagues, part of the answer lies in 'social indicators'

How social indicators can influence decisions to trust experts: the case of Dr Didier Raoult 

Social indicators are cues in our social environment that people consciously and unconsciously interpret to create the reputations of others, explains Teresa Branch. In the article, we argue that the social indicators surrounding Dr. Raoult helped to form a reputation about him that many people found appealing despite challenges to his recommendation.”

She goes on that there are many social indicators that can inform the reputations of experts. These social indicators depend on the subject and the person using them. In the case of Dr. Raoult, the authors explored his charisma, status, influence and values. “Charisma is determined by someone’s way of speaking, their self-assurance and other personal qualities that justify, in the eyes of others, her epistemic authority. Epistemic authority is a deference to someone else's knowledge because they are in a better position to know the relevant information. Status is one’s position in a hierarchy. It is dynamic and it affects the way in which an expert’s opinion will be evaluated by publics and tends to rise in relation to epistemic authority. Influence measures the popularity of an expert beyond their community. And values, are dynamic and contextual mental processes. They live in our minds and in the world around us, guiding our decisions, influencing how society is structured and determining how we decide what is important”. 

As a communicator, Dr. Raoult achieved an international reputation which allowed researchers to observe the evolution of social indicators influencing his reputation in real time.  Dr. Raoult ranks highly in several indicators by having a lot of charisma, holding a high status position at a University-affiliated research hospital and putting him in an influential position from which to communicate what he values. 

Teresa Branch and co-authors also point out that as a “scientist-practitioner” Dr. Raoult has a very particular type of dual-expertise. She explains that as a scientist, Dr. Raoult is part of a community that is sensitive to methodologies of science which aim to acquire more reliable knowledge. In other words, he has the technical epistemic training expected of scientific experts contributing to his epistemic authority. However, he is able to do more than theorise treatments because as he is also a practitioner, and therefore able to use his scientific expertise to test these treatments actively on patients. “The dual commitment to these two epistemic communities is both advantageous and disadvantageous. It is advantageous because he has a large breath of knowledge to draw on for his recommendations. However, this can also lead to tension, like for example, when deciding which should take priority: the methodological commitments expected of scientists or the practitioner commitment to treating patients”.  

These and many other social indicators are found in Dr Raoult's communications. The public therefore easily incorporated them into their perception of his reputation and used them in combination with the evidence he presented to form an opinion of his recommendation for hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. “This work grows the literature in social epistemology because it explains how people use secondary characteristics —like social indicators— to decide which experts to trust, explains Teresa Branch. Earlier work in the field is much more focused on the actual information provided by experts (e.g. the empirical evidence) to explain people’s decision-making.  But decisions to trust are much more complicated than this and suggest that it is richer and more complex than people simply adopting information verbatim”. 

The researchers' article therefore recommends taking care when choosing which expert to trust. “It takes a degree of self-reflection to figure out why we gravitate towards believing certain experts as opposed to others. This ‘meta-reflective’ work can be difficult, because it forces us to consider our own biases and epistemic short-comings, but ultimately it can help us to make more reliable decisions about whom to trust”. The researcher suggests, for example, looking for inconsistencies or conflicts between the social indicators to help decide whether to trust an expert or not: “If an expert proudly communicates their status in a hierarchy, but then goes on to critique the very existence of the hierarchy, then this produces an inconsistency which people should reflect on as they evaluate the reputation of the expert. In other words, we should ask: is the expert playing both sides and if so, is that a good thing?”.

Figure : Examples of social indicators of reputation (status, epistemic authority, influence, and values) combined along four dimensions: personal, institutional, formal and informal.


The study of values in science

During her post-doctorate at the Institut Jean Nicod, in the Epistemic Norms team led by Gloria Origgi, Teresa Branch’s work consisted of studying the theoretical landscape of trusting experts and focused on the study of values. “My current work extends this subject matter to explore how values in science, trust in experts and science communication, intersect with vaccine hesitancy”. Values are one of the main social cues studied in the Social Epistemology article, but what do we refer to when we talk about values in science?

The researcher explains that since the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War, science adopted what philosophers call the Value-Free Ideal for science. This ideal assumes that only certain epistemic values, such as objectivity and reliability, contribute to guiding science towards truth. Under the Value-Free Ideal, only these epistemic values are allowed to evaluate evidence. “The Value-Free Ideal forbids social, personal and political values from playing a role when setting standards for evidence. However, personal, social and political values —or non-epistemic values— have been shown to actually be attractive for science because there is always a chance of error. Since you can never do every possible experiment to prove a hypothesis to be true (or false), at some point scientists must determine how much evidence is enough. This decision cannot be based exclusively on epistemic values, and so non-epistemic values (like personal, social and political values) can be desirable in order to set thresholds of evidence. Philosophers generally think that taking into consideration, for example, society’s values when determining appropriate thresholds to accept or reject hypotheses is a better course of action than not. This is especially true when we consider that science can have a significant impact on society”.

Teresa Branch uses the example of a group of experts who design a dam, calculate the amount of water the dam can hold, and also have to predict the worst-case scenario if the dam breaks. “Say that the area below the damn is generally unused and if the dam were to break, the consequences of this are expected to be relatively minimal. There might be some temporary environmental damage but other than that, no one would be expected to get hurt, local agriculture would not be affected etc. In this case, the experts can decide on how much evidence is sufficient enough but might not be compelled to consider non-epistemic values in the same way as if there were serious social consequences of error. Alternatively, if there is a risk of environmental harm or danger to local communities who would be affected by the dam breaking, the potential consequences of error are much more serious. In this case, we might want experts to take extra precautions, run more tests, check their evidence over more often and set higher thresholds for what counts as ‘OK’ to build the dam. In this case, non-epistemic values (e.g. public welfare) have directly entered science and affect thresholds of evidence because of the potential consequences science can have”.

The presence of values in science and how values are communicated is crucial to decisions to trust. Teresa Branch specifies that the literature shows that people are more likely to trust someone with similar values as them. “When scientist-practioners like Dr. Raoult communicate that they prioritise non-epistemic values which stress patient welfare as opposed to methodological epistemic values (like replicability) it resonates with people differently depending on which value they prioritise more. This is one example of how people use values as a social indicators to help them build reputations and decisions about who to trust”.

A passion for scientific communication

During her undergraduate degree is in biochemistry (specialization psychology), Teresa Branch realised that rather than working in the laboratory, it was science communication that she was passionate about. This led her to pursue a career working in museums like the The Canada Science and Technology Museum (Ottawa). While she completed her masters, she worked at the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto) and then at Science North (Sudbury) as she finished a graduate diploma in Science Communication. “I ultimately pursued a PhD in Philosophy (University of Waterloo) while working with the University of Waterloo Computer Museum because I am fascinated by how we communicate science and how it might be improved. I am also passionate about Applied Philosophy, or philosophy aimed at addressing real-world challenges, and soduring my doctorate I created two Philosopher-in-Residence positions. Here I philosophized alongside experts at Philip Beesley Architect Inc. (Toronto, Canada) and the Zenith Computer Science Research laboratory (INRIA, France). As a philosopher of science, my goal is to make science and the process of empirical inquiry more inclusive, accurate and socially situated”.


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