Running away with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Dear Willow:

I am concerned about the relationship that Kathy is developing with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent of CNN.

Kathy and I have been in a committed relationship for almost 30 years, married for almost 20, and I feel as though if Dr. Gupta rang our doorbell and asked her to join his battle against the coronavirus she may say yes, and I would never see her again, and not just because she’s highly invested in eradicating the coronavirus.

Yes, Dr. Gupta is handsome. He has a very charming smile that highlights his “professional” teeth, the kind of chompers you almost only see on someone who spends a lot of in front of a camera, but this is not the main attraction to Dr. Gupta, because I too share her fascination and attraction.

The main source of attraction, I believe, is Dr. Gupta’s “expertise.” There’s something powerful and reassuring about someone who knows what they’re talking about.

One of the things I most appreciate about Dr. Gupta as an expert is his willingness to say when he doesn’t know something for sure, but then answers from the best of the available knowledge while also offering appropriate cautions about the limits of what we know.

In short, I trust him. I’ve cut my pandemic television watching significantly over time, but if Dr Gupta is on, I’m there.

I can’t be the only one who feels like we need experts and expertise more than ever, but who is also worried about some of the people who are popping up to claim expertise. Social media gives a platform for anyone to broadcast their take, and if you’re not careful you can fall for straight-up misinformation.

Traditionally, I’ve put a lot of trust in credentials, but that’s no guarantee of expertise. Did you see that Dr. Drew had to apologize for weeks he spent downplaying the pandemic? I used to love Dr. Drew on Loveline. I remember listening to it while grading student papers late night when I was in grad school. He looks like he’s fallen off the rails.

The celebrity expert is an annoyance in normal times, but when the stakes are this high, they’re actually dangerous. After Dr. Anthony Fauci—a practicing physician and expert in immunology—went on Fox to explain the “plan” for reopening the country and throw cold water on some incorrect comparisons between HIV and the coronavirus, Dr. Phil was invited on to opine that “360,000 people a year” die in swimming accidents, “but we don’t shut the country down for that.”

Of course, drownings are not contagious.

Also, according to the CDC only 3,500 people a year unintentionally drown period, let alone in swimming pools.

Also, this is the interior of Dr. Phil’s house as shown in a real estate listing. I believe the euphemism for the décor is “specific.”

I hope you like antlers and automatic weapons.

Elite credentials carry a lot of weight in our culture. This guy is able to get bookings on TV because he was a New York Times reporter like a decade ago, but he now seems to be a conspiracy theorist.

And did you follow the brief saga of Richard Epstein, a University of Chicago Law Professor with an affiliation with Stanford’s Hoover Institute, who wrote an article criticizing the epidemiological modeling on the virus and declared that only 500 (later revised up to 5,000) people would die of the disease in the U.S.? Back when President Trump was talking about an Easter re-opening, it was believed Epstein’s article was one of the sources of the President’s enthusiasm for that date.

Clearly Epstein was wrong. Interviewing Epstein at the New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner thoroughly filleted his theory, primarily by pointing out the holes in Esptein’s self-declared expertise.

It’s a cautionary tale for a lot of reasons, not just for Epstein, but the rest of us. Credentials don’t tell the whole story, though it seems remarkably easy for the well-credentialed to get their ideas in front of powerful people and then remain insulated from the consequences of their errors.

Maybe this is jealousy. All of my degrees are from state schools and during my teaching career I’ve always been contingent faculty, never a “professor.” Even with my books about teaching writing getting some notice, I occasionally struggle with the notion that I could be considered an expert, because I lack some of those traditional credentials.

That’s no humblebrag, that’s good, old-fashioned insecurity.

Though, if I had to choose between a hyper-inflated sense of my own abilities, like Prof. Epstein, and the occasional bout of impostor syndrome, I’ll take the problem that keeps me from making embarrassingly incorrect public pronouncements.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but when we were first talking about me coming to work for Willow, I had concerns about the fact that it had been 20 years since I’d worked in market research. I mean, no doubt, I had some rust.

But then I remembered how quickly I was able to learn the ropes the first time around, and even more importantly, I trusted in the expertise of the already-extant Willow team. After all, I’d seen that expertise in action for years. I knew that I could come back and knowledgeable, experienced, careful people would have my back. I was impressed by Willow. It felt like a sound move to join the team.

(I hope I’ve made you all blush.)

Having that backup makes it so much easier to learn and grow since we are protected from risk. I try to do something similar with my teaching philosophy, where I incentivize students to take a big swing at a difficult task by grading the scale of ambition and quality of attempt as much as the end product itself.

(I’ve just opened a whole ‘nother topic I should talk about in a different letter.)

Do any of you guys feel a similar affinity to Dr. Gupta as Kathy and I?

And have you signed the petition to People magazine to name Dr. Anthony Fauci the “Sexiest Man Alive”?

 

Yours in confidence,

John

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