Why We Trust Those Fallible Experts
They aren't omniscient and they can never govern us. But in a crisis, they're the best shot we've got.
Here’s a sobering thought: what if nobody really knows anything? What if everyone talking about this pandemic is making it up as they go along? I don’t just mean the pundits like me, for whom feigning expertise is practically a résumé skill. I mean the actual specialists, all the way up to Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx. After all, the surgeon general’s initial advice that people not use masks to prevent contagion was very wrong. And many of the models purporting to plot the coronavirus’s trajectory have turned out to be so much junk.
Certainly there are limitations to expertise. Among them are that experts tend to be specialized—get them off their field and they become much less knowledgeable. And a crisis like COVID is by its very nature broad, touching not just medicine but public health, economics, geopolitics. This is why Dr. Fauci recently waved away the coronavirus’s economic implications as merely “inconvenient”: it was callous, yes, but it was also a reflection of the fact that economics simply isn’t something he spends much time thinking about.
Many conservatives pounced on Fauci for that remark. What we really need, they said, is balance, taking into consideration the economy as well as the coronavirus. Yet I would argue that rather than a balanced approach, what we need is a sequential one. The first priority is defeating the virus, then we can focus on reopening businesses. That gives experts like Dr. Fauci, flawed and fallible though they are, a national role to play, at least in the short term.
Other conservatives have launched deeper-seated critiques of our reliance on expertise. Among them is Matthew Schmitz at the Catholic Herald:
Our elite’s pretensions to scientific expertise lack basis in reality. Their appeals to “science” perform the same role as used to be filled by the idea of the divine right of kings. It serves to justify the existing regime. In confronting coronavirus, our actions should be guided by sound medical advice. But we should not merely submit to the new elites.
Certainly expertise has become a status marker, though I’d argue there’s a gaping difference between a scientist who’s carefully accumulated knowledge over the years and a spoiled scion sitting on a cardboard box whining that God is on his side. Also, contra Schmitz, I’m not sure anyone is “submitting” to anything. The jackheel of Dr. Birx has yet to descend. It’s one thing to unleash a bureaucratic class of experts unconstrained by legal limits, as Croly wanted, Burnham warned of, and Schmitz is objecting to. It’s quite another to listen to those with pertinent knowledge during a fraught time. And I’m not so sure the second puts us at risk of the first. Things may change, the government may expand its power, but that won’t be the fault of the MDs in the room.
More fun has been to watch the left’s reaction to all this. Progressives: this should be your moment! For a century now, you’ve fetishized expertise. Better a social scientist than a right-wing know-nothing or a hidebound cleric, am I right? There’s just one problem: many of our medical experts work for Donald Trump. Some of them have even said nice things about him. Thus did Brian Williams actually mock Dr. Birx when she had the gall to praise Trump (presumably with all the subtlety of an RPG fired at a Chinook helicopter). More recently, Chris Hayes speculated that medical authorities had rolled out a dire casualty model they knew was false so as to make the president look good later on. Experts are wonderful, the left holds, but the progressive idea of experts is far more important. And the progressive idea demands that the whiz kids and the orange man always be on opposite sides.
Yet we shouldn’t just blame the partisans here. At fault is the entire way we view expertise as a society. Today, when we decide we trust an expert, we don’t just want specialized knowledge. We want a generalist, a political commentator, an aphorist, a talking head, a life coach, a reliable Ellen guest, a fashion model, a sex symbol, a spiritual guru, a dynamo who works 32 hours a day and at age 98 is in the best shape of his life while allowing his equally brilliant wife to verbally peer review all his work at the clip of an Aaron Sorkin character. That Fauci can’t do all this, that his utility is limited to medicine, doesn’t satiate the camera’s hungry lens. What does he think of Tom Brady signing on with the Buccaneers? These are troubled times and we need guidance, dammit.
So maybe the lesson is that, rather than trusting or not trusting expertise, we need to keep it in its proper place. Experts are not the prophets we perceive them to be; sometimes they even take shots in the dark. But they sure beat the MSNBC primetime bloc.