le mot unjuste

I’ve written before about the dual and mutually reinforcing social problems of (a) stupid resistance to expertise and (b) dubious claims of expertise. Here’s the New York Times making the situation worse: 

“Some experts” is as bad a phrase as you could employ in this context. Such shorthand might be defensible in a tweet, but if you follow the link in the tweet and read the article you see the same usage. It’s sheer laziness. Who are these experts? What are they experts in? (Further laziness: one of the links in the article goes to yet another tweet, this one by the Washington Military Department and its Emergency Management Division. That’s your expert?) 

Saying that some unnamed experts in some unnamed field think Trump is wrong is weak and misleading. Better would be something like this: Our investigations indicate there are no epidemiologists, virologists, or infectious disease doctors in the entire freaking world who think Trump is right about this stuff. The President is talking through his hat and wishing on a star

who you gonna believe?

Rush Limbaugh says, “Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says, “I mean, people always say, well, the flu, you know, the flu does this, the flu does that. The flu has a mortality of 0.1 percent. This is ten times that.” (He could have said “at least ten times that.”) 

Question: Why does Rush Limbaugh think he knows better than Fauci? Potential answers:  

  1. He doesn’t. He’s just saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear in order to keep them listening, keep his advertising rates high, and put more money in his pocket. 
  2. He’s a narcissist who suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect
  3. It’s a classic case of motivated reasoning: Like all of us, he would prefer that COVID-19 be an insignificant threat to public health, so he finds a way to believe it. 
  4. He sees a vast conspiracy of elite culture against Donald Trump in particular and conservatism in general, and Fauci, as the director of a federal agency, is ipso facto a member of that elite; therefore it is logical to assume that Fauci is part of that conspiracy. (Perhaps not consciously; perhaps Limbaugh would think that Fauci is the one guilty of motivated reasoning.) 

We need not choose one or two explanations: probably all four factors are at work, though it would be impossible to know in what proportion. Certainly Limbaugh wouldn’t know, in precisely the same way that I don’t understand my own motivations. 

But maybe more significant is this question: Why do many Americans — millions of them, I suppose — believe Limbaugh rather than Fauci? Presumably answers 3 and 4 above play a major role. But the matter bears more reflection. 

I believe the key issue that must be addressed in this situation concerns what Tom Nichols calls the death of expertise — and, more important still, what might be done to restore public trust in genuine expertise. For my money, the really vital chapter in Nichols’s book is the one on the wrongness of experts — why they get things wrong and what happens when they do. Indeed, that should be a book in itself.

I want to call attention to a few passages from Nichols’s book, starting with this one: 

[Our] daily trust in professionals … is a prosaic matter of necessity. It is much the same way we trust everyone else in our daily lives, including the bus driver we assume isn’t drunk or the restaurant worker we assume has washed her hands. This is not the same thing as trusting professionals when it comes to matters of public policy: to say that we trust our doctors to write us the correct prescription is not the same thing as saying we trust all medical professionals about whether America should have a system of national health care. To say that we trust a college professor to teach our sons and daughters the history of World War II is not the same thing as saying that we there- fore trust all academic historians to advise the president of the United States on matters of war and peace. […] 

Experts can go wrong, for example, when they try to stretch their expertise from one area to another. This is not only a recipe for error, but is maddening to other experts as well. In some cases, the cross-expertise poaching is obvious, as when entertainers — experts in their own fields, to be sure — confuse art with life and start issuing explanations of complicated matters.

But it’s not just “entertainers” like Limbaugh who are to blame here. A classic example of the abuse of expertise, as I wrote a few years ago, is the Doomsday Clock. If I may quote myself: “No actual science goes into the decision of where to place the hands of the clock. The scientists who make the decision have no particular expertise in geopolitical strategy, military and political risk assessment, or even climatology (relevant since they incorporate climate change into their assessment). They just read a bunch of stuff and take their own emotional temperature.” 

Related to this is the reluctance of many experts to acknowledge the vital distinction between what can be known precisely — and therefore precisely anticipated — and that which is too complex, or too dependent on unknown unknowns, to be subject to confident prediction. If you listen to Dr. Fauci’s full testimony, you’ll see, I think, that it’s an outstanding example of how to distinguish between what experts can know and what they cannot. But that sort of caution is, alas, not the norm.  

That’s why I think Nichols ends his chapter on the wrong note. It’s not that what he says is incorrect — it isn’t. It’s true. Here’s his last paragraph: 

For laypeople to use expert advice and to place professionals in their proper roles as servants, rather than masters, they must accept their own limitations as well. Democracy cannot function when every citizen is an expert. Yes, it is unbridled ego for experts to believe they can run a democracy while ignoring its voters; it is also, however, ignorant narcissism for laypeople to believe that they can maintain a large and advanced nation without listening to the voices of those more educated and experienced than themselves. 

But had I been writing that I would’ve placed more stress on the need for experts to police themselves far more carefully then they currently do: to maintain the strictest standards of impartiality, and to make clear distinctions among (a) what they know, (b) matters about which they can reasonably surmise, and (c) those topics on which their opinions are no better than yours or mine. One of the primary responsibilities of genuine experts, in a heavily polluted informational ecosystem, is to give uninformed laypeople no justification, however implausible, for preferring their own judgment to that of the genuinely knowledgable. That wouldn’t eliminate the Dunning-Kruger effect, nor would it get rid of a President who thinks he has a “natural ability” to understand complex scientific matters in which he has no training whatsoever; but over the long haul, incrementally, it would help. 


UPDATE: A fascinating and illuminating comment on this post from Samuel James: “You know what the most interesting thing is about Limbaugh’s COVID commentary? The fact that he was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It stands to reason, does it not, that a man who desperately needs the best experts and credentialed information in this season of his (possibly fading) life would see the value of expert testimony? But in my experience, this actually has little effect on people. My family tree is full of people who practically live in the hospital and eat prescriptions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who are confident that Sean Hannity knows more about anything than any scientist, lawyer, or even theologian. The death of expertise is so nefarious precisely because it’s resistant to cognitive dissonance.”