It’s not hard to find amateurs who got it right, after the fact. Amateur advice is of lower expected quality, but of much higher variance than expert advice.
Apart from filtering out the obvious crazies, can we identify high quality amateur advice ahead of time?
These articles were widely shared at the time, and people were taking them seriously. https://medium.com/@noahhaber/flatten-the-curve-of-armchair-epidemiology-9aa8cf92d652 and https://medium.com/@ameliahoovergreen/listen-to-actual-experts-on-coronavirus-please-1b0e7f2c763e were a response to that saying “please stop paying attention to these widely shared articles because they are not written by experts”. I’m saying that the attention was reasonable given the circumstances and the contents of the articles.
If the “please stop paying attention” articles had contained substantive criticisms of the articles (“they say Italy’s CFR is X but they’re missing Y”) I would feel very differently.
But other people were sharing other articles saying different things (“this is all overblown”), or just something more moderate like “we’ll have to social distance later but not yet” and other people were also taking those seriously. So I still don’t know how to answer the question of “at the time, how should we have known who to listen to?”
Here’s my answer:There is an important distinction between “object level arguments” and “appeals to authority”. Contrary to how it’s normally spoken about, appeal to authority is not really fallacious and at times absolutely necessary. If I am unable to parse the object level arguments myself, I have to defer to experts. The only issue is whether I have the self awareness and integrity to say “I’m not capable of evaluating this myself, so unfortunately I have to defer to the people I trust to get these things right. Maybe you’re right and I’m just not smart enough to see it”. However, this must ground out somewhere. If you listen to people who only appeal to authority (whether it is their own or others) and there are never any attempts to ground things in object level arguments, then there is nothing this trust is founded on and so your beliefs can float away with no connection to reality.What I do is take into consideration all object level arguments which I am not personally qualified to evaluate, and then weigh my trust in the various “authorities” based on how capable they seem in actually getting into the object level and making at least as much sense as the people they’re arguing against. As it applies here, the amateurs linked to actually got into the object level and made very plausible sounding arguments. I didn’t see any major holes in the main premise, even if I could pick less important nits. I never saw any credentialed authority engaging in the object level and making even plausibly correct counterarguments which negated the main point of these amateur models. There were a lot of “don’t worry, nothing to see here”, but there weren’t any that were backed up by concrete models that didn’t have visible holes. The people I’m going to listen to (regardless of how capable I personally am of evaluating the object level arguments) are those who 1) have been willing to stick their neck out and make actual arguments, and 2) haven’t had their neck chopped off by people pointing out identifiable mistakes in ways that are either personally verifiable or agreed upon by a more compelling network of “authority”.I think this heuristic worked pretty well in this case.