A Thing That's Not a Thing

We aren’t here to criticize Dr. Anthony Fauci, an extremely accomplished government leader who is also extremely knowledgeable in the field of infectious diseases. The man has already been the target of ridiculous, uninformed attacks, much to our nation’s shame.

This post is not about Dr. Fauci.

This post is about the problem of our media repeating things that they don’t understand or which simply are not true.

Specifically, we have noted an unfortunate tendency of media outlets to describe Dr. Fauci as “the nation’s top expert in infectious diseases.”

Now to be clear, although Dr Fauci doesn’t seem to shy away from the limelight, this isn’t his claim.

That’s because this is simply not a thing. There is no such thing as “the nation’s top expert in infectious diseases.”

Why is that?

Because “infectious diseases” is such a huge, huge area. It’s as if someone came up to you and announced that so-and-so is the nation’s top singer.

Wait a minute, you would say/think. The nation’s top rapper? Country singer? Opera? Rock? Now? In the past? Male? Female? It’s just too broad a category to have any meaning.

Even if they came out  with so-and-so is the nation’s best opera singer, you’d still have questions. Male or female? Tenor? Soprano? Wagner or Italian opera? The best for technical precision, or raw talent, or emotional delivery? Best by today’s style standards, or the standards of 100 years ago?

What an area’s too big and vague, trying to say that someone is the “top” of the entire field is a meaningless and misleading statement.

Similarly, the field of “infectious disease” and its treatment is enormous. There are viruses. There are bacteria. There is rickettsia. There are helminths. There is vaccine research. There are antibiotics. There is immunology. There is examining and treating individual patients and there is coordinating government plans to address these diseases.

One person simply cannot be the “top expert” of it all. Dr Fauci, for example, is a top expert (again there is no single one) in health administration. He is very, very good at health administration, by the way, and has won numerous awards for his work with the US government. He has not practiced clinical medicine (seeing patients) since the 1960s and he has not done “bench research since the 1970s, so he is not going to be any kind of expert in those areas of infectious disease. That’s not a failing, he just using his talents in a more productive way.

Again, we are sure that although Dr. Fauci would be flattered, as would we all, to be described as the “nation’s top expert” he is not the one making any such claims.

The problem isn’t him. The problem is people, including journalists, repeating something uncritically, or without knowing what it means. This then can have dangerous repercussions, because it could lead people to overvalue merely speculative remarks. No one can see the future, but everyone has opinions. The field of infectious diseases is so broad, in fact even the field of virology, even the field of studying SARS type viruses is so broad, that no one person can know the most of any person involved.

We suspect Dr. Fauci’s opinions about viruses are better informed that some other public figures (guess who) but he does not possess any kind of super human knowledge or prescience over the entire field of infection diseases. And given his well-known strengths as an administrator and leader, we suspect further that he’d be the first person to tell you that what’s important isn’t one person’s opinion, but teamwork and coordination of knowledge.

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