Rule by Experts?

By: Peter G. Klein
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The populist sentiment behind the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, increasing skepticism of the mainstream media, distrust of higher education institutions, and similar phenomena has given rise to a worry among experts that society no longer values expertise. 

Tom Nichols, author of the recent book The Death of Expertise, thinks the increasingly skeptical attitude among the general public poses grave harm to society. Writing in Politico, he worries that

the implicit social contract between educated elites and laypeople — in which professionals were rewarded for their expertise and, in turn, were expected to spread the benefits of their knowledge — is fraying. . . . [O]rdinary citizens seem increasingly confident in their views, but no more competent than they were 30 or 40 years ago. A significant number of laypeople now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field. They have come to this conclusion after being coddled in classrooms from kindergarten through college, continually assured by infotainment personalities in increasingly segmented media that popular views, no matter how nutty, are virtuous and right, and mesmerized by an internet that tells them exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ridiculous the question.

Nichols does not explain exactly why this skepticism is harmful, assuming that multiple references to Trump and people who do not vaccinate their children on the CDC schedule are sufficient to validate the rule of experts. (In fairness, I haven’t read his book, only this one article.) 

One response to this kind of concern — which almost always comes from the political left and talk about vaccines and climate change — is to point out that anti-scientific, anti-expert views are quite common among self-described progressives. (I like to refer to minimum-wage supporters as “wage-science deniers.”) 

But there is a more fundamental problem with these sorts of articles: they conflate the scientific concept of “expertise” (systematic, deep knowledge of particular theories, mechanisms, and evidence) with the sociological concept of “expert” (a person who claims to have expertise). Even the most cursory glance at the history, philosophy, or sociology of science tells us that the self-proclaimed “experts” are frequently, and horribly wrong on a host of critical issues.

The nutrition experts, working with special interests, gave us the 1970s-era food pyramid (telling us to maximize our carb intake while avoiding protein). Before 1989 the consensus among establishment economists was that Soviet-style central planning was more efficient and less wasteful than the “anarchic” methods of markets and that Soviet GDP would soon overtake that of the US. Even today, most government officials, bankers, and media commentators are vulgar Keynesians. And who knows whether the current consensus in climate science — a field awash in billions of dollars of special-interest funding — will turn out to be correct. In any case, we need more than a few anecdotes to support the claim that the rule of experts brings net benefits.

To his credit, Nichols recognizes that experts communities aren’t entirely blameless:

their track records are full of mistakes, some of great consequence. Worse, because experts tend to speak mostly to one another, they often display a lack of empathy with those who do not understand them or their specialized jargon. They barely veil their pleasure at the distance, both physical and intellectual, they enjoy from laypeople. And they too easily fall prey to the arrogance of believing that their expertise in one subject can be applied to almost any issue — especially if there’s a healthy paycheck involved.

This all true, but there’s a more fundamental problem, what Hayek described as the hubris of the intellectual or “constructivist rationalism,” the belief that the community of scientific and technical elites can organize and plan, from the top down, all human activities and organizations. In a free market, people are free to become experts, private funders are free to train experts and support their research and outreach, and we are all free to follow the advice of this or that expert, or none. Under interventionism, certain experts partner with the state, the former providing legitimacy, the latter providing resources. That’s the relationship most threatened by public skepticism. 

 

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