Great America

Can We Trust the Experts?

It’s easy to make mistakes in life, and this is as true for the president as it is for any of us. Mistakes are made more likely, however, when experts and their strident, certain, and fancy-looking models are involved.

One of the great themes of the Trump presidency has been an overarching conflict between the people’s democratically elected president and the technocrats. Which claim to rule is legitimate? The one rooted in the consent of the people or the one rooted in the expertise of these technocrats?

Whether it’s trade, foreign policy, or the use of executive authority, President Trump finds himself constantly bumping into the resistance of experts who insist that their opinions on these matters are something more than mere opinion. Their opinions, they assure us, are simply correct—beyond dispute.

For experts, political questions are fundamentally questions of technique, and every expert claims to have definitive right answers on questions where murkier questions of values and trade-offs are set aside, eclipsed by an “expert consensus.”

Obama was the ultimate technocratic president. He abided by the advice of the experts and, in spite of the historic nature of his win, fundamentally he changed very little about how things were done.

The experts were Obama’s biggest fans, not least because of his deference to their authority and respect for their status. After all, he came from an academic background himself where credentials were the coin of the realm.

Joe Biden also has made it clear, due to a combination of long-established instincts and his obvious cognitive decline, that he would hand over the keys to experts.

By contrast, on the coronavirus, as on much else, Trump at first resisted the experts. Then, being pragmatic and malleable, he was persuaded by their call for stringent measures after hearing increasingly dire predictions augmented by the dire news out of Italy and China.

Now the experts who claimed America would face potentially millions of deaths from the coronavirus are backtracking. They went from predictions of 240,000 deaths (even with social distancing and various authoritarian measures) to 60,000, the equivalent of a bad flu season.

In following their expert advice, the lives of millions have now been irrevocably damaged. At least 17 million people are unemployed. The government’s debt has increased exponentially. And Americans have seen that government has substantial power and a willingness to use it. The only thing needed to instigate this power grab was the fig leaf of a public health crisis.

As a country, we have learned something I’ve seen many times professionally: experts disagree.

As litigators know, many lawsuits devolve into a battle of experts. Some of these expert witnesses are shockingly similar to common prostitutes. They’ll say whatever their paying clients demand.

But, even among the honest ones, there is a wide range of disagreement. They weigh things differently, have different assumptions, and employ different models. In popular culture, science is treated by the media and many people as some type of magic. “They” know. “Experts” say. But, when you read the studies, take their depositions, or do a deep dive on any of it, it becomes clear that science is really is more of a conversation. There are many debates and different philosophies. Some reason more soundly than others and have better judgment. This is as true in the natural sciences and medicine, as it is in softer subjects like economics or psychology.

Peer Review or the Scientific Method

Science used to be rooted in experiments. This is where the scientific method comes in. It’s not a question of authority or title or credentials, but of testing. You have a hypothesis and conduct an experiment that proves or disproves it. Everything is provisional because everything can possibly be falsified and displaced. A guy in his garage who is honest and on the ball could disprove a Newton, theoretically, through the same method.

Science, though, has undergone much of the same managerial revolution as the rest of life. It is now about “peer review,” which, unlike falsifiable hypotheses and testing, is a mere simulacrum of the scientific method. Secondary considerations like diversity may come into play. Nothing is “blind,” and reputation carries some weight. Much of the science may not even involve testing at all, but rather elaborate, non-falsifiable models.

This is especially apparent in areas where a lot of money may be on the line, such as medicine and climate science or expert witness testimony. Needless to say, when “peer-reviewed” work has been tested, much of it has come up snake eyes. This is the “replication” crisis, which has shown that much of “science” in the age of peer review may not be worth a damn.

Trump and the country are learning this the hard way. Epidemiologists in high places said the country was facing a certain disaster, and everything had to be done to stop it. Even while they expressed absolute conviction in their models regarding future harm, they expressed skepticism about promising clinical outcomes involving the old malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, and the familiar “Z pack.”

Of course, there is a legitimate scientific debate to be had about coronavirus treatment. This new disease has only been around a short while. Some studies support this treatment, and others are more equivocal. But since we’re all supposed to be dispassionate and demand double-blind studies and all the rest, did anyone do any of that before sending us home, shutting down parks and restaurants, and leaving 17 million Americans unemployed? Those recommendations were rooted in a plausible hunch, and the recommendation had none of the rigor demanded for clinical treatments.

Yet here we are.

Expert Myopia

Doctors, like every other technical expert out there, chiefly care about one thing: their own area of expertise. They rate it the summum bonum of life.

They’re not alone in this. Lawyers care about legal risk, and, if they had their way, would stop much useful and entrepreneurial activity. The HVAC repair guy will tell you not to use a good filter, because it could hurt the motor. So much for your allergies. The lawn guy will talk your ear off about fertilizer and soil. There are even internet forums devoted to analyzing flashlights. Everyone knows a lot about his own little corner of the world.

But just because doctors know medicine, and epidemiologists know about epidemics and public health, it doesn’t mean they know or care or care to know about other things, like, say, what it means to destroy 17 million jobs. After all, a majority of doctors now favor “single-payer” healthcare—that is, socialized medicine. And, both from litigation and life, we should know that doctors are notoriously bad business people.

Twenty years ago an excellent movie—“The Boiler Room”—showed how this works in practice. Scammers hawking fraudulent stocks, so-called boiler room operations, often target doctors. The doctor-victims have money. And they’re willing to pull the trigger. They’re smart. And they’re also overconfident in areas outside of medicine because they’re smart. IQ and wisdom are different things.

Those who have said this is not a time for politics, misunderstand what politics is at a fundamental level. “The goal of the general is victory, whereas the goal of the statesmen is the common good,” Leo Strauss wrote. “What victory means is not essentially controversial, but the meaning of the common good is essentially controversial. The ambiguity of the political goal is due to its comprehensive character.”

In other words, the statesmen must be concerned with the common good as a whole, not merely physical health, the economy, or national defense. He cannot elevate any one of these particular goods to the point that it eclipses all of the other things that make up the common good.

In this sense, Trump’s eagerness to restart the economy and question the experts is a virtue. He understands his duty is to the common good, and it requires questioning the experts.

Moving Forward to Secure the Common Good

We may never know if the shutdowns slowed the virus, destroyed the economy for nothing, or did something in between. Real life happens and choices must be made under conditions of uncertainty, as we wait for the various “double-blind” studies to get ramped up.

We do know that different American states and different countries have taken varied approaches, and these approaches appear orthogonal to the spread of the coronavirus. Here at home, no place has been as hard hit as New York, but we know the shutdowns elsewhere have been remarkably costly relative to the now-reduced worst-case projections.

It’s easy to make mistakes in life, and this is as true for the president as it is for any of us. Mistakes become more likely, however, when experts and their strident, certain, and fancy-looking models are involved. They’re hard to ignore because they’re cloaked in the mantle and artificial authority we now assign to science.

The doctor’s various accouterments, the white jackets and the titles, are not accidents. They’re designed to amplify authority and encourage compliance. Doctors are used to telling even powerful people what to do: have surgery, eat a certain way, or take this or that drug. And the message is usually binary and stark: do this or you die.

But when you look at the studies or sit down with them in depositions, you realize, as with most things in life, it’s complicated. The now-famous Anthony Fauci and others at his level may be giving their best, educated advice on policy, but doctors are not unanimous, incontrovertible, or always right. Other intelligent and highly credentialed experts have expressed well-argued skepticism.

Trump and the country are in the equivalent position of a person who is being told to employ his entire net worth for an experimental surgery with a 30 percent chance of success—with success defined loosely enough to include what subjectively is a disaster. No thanks.

As doctors are reminded from their oath, first do no harm. Here, they’ve done enough. It’s time to reopen the country and let free people manage risk as they see fit.