The Suicide of Expertise

In his 2017 book, The Death of Expertise, author Tom Nichols argued that know-it-all Americans were tuning out the credentialed class at great risk to the country. “We rely on delegating decisions to other people who we assume are going to have some better knowledge of these issues than we are,” he said in an April 2017 speech. “Our republic functions on delegating decisions to others who rely on expertise to help make the best decisions we can make.”

Nichols, a rabid NeverTrumper, often ridicules Trump and his supporters as ignorant rubes who recklessly disregard the advice of Our Betters with Letters. Blaming experts for disastrous foreign wars or lousy trade pacts, Nichols insists, is just a craven political strategy. It is inconceivable to him that disgust with the expert class could be rooted in legitimate gripes or clear evidence of failure.

But like so many assumptions made by his NeverTrump cohorts, Nichols is wrong. Again. Expertise did not die at the hands of deplorable Trumpkins or even web-surfing suburban moms. Expertise wasn’t killed; it has slowly committed suicide.

And we are watching the final death throes of the credentialed class as the last gasps of their credibility can be heard across social media and cable news outlets. The tension between two forms of pseudoscience—social distancing and social justice—snapped, and the experts who vehemently demanded the former now take a knee to defend the latter.

Public Health Hypocrisy

As I wrote last week, the protests and violence unleashed in the name of George Floyd abruptly canceled the expert-backed lockdowns that most Americans have followed dutifully for nearly three months. Close observers of the coronavirus crisis waited in vain for inevitable lectures from public health officials and social media shamers warning that hedonistic rabble-rousers would spread the disease.

To the contrary, not only did the experts refuse to scold social distancing violators, they justified the mass gatherings. Health experts signed a letter explaining why mostly-white lockdown protesters should be treated differently than mostly-black social justice protestors; they even objected to various law enforcement measures. “[We] Advocate that protesters not be arrested or held in confined spaces, including jails or police vans, which are some of the highest-risk areas for COVID-19 transmission,” the experts scolded.

One well-known expert, a familiar face on cable news shows over the past few months, also weighed in: “We commit to working to produce the evidence that racism and discrimination are critical public health issues that demand an urgent response, wherever they occur. We are committed to this fight.”

The author of those empty words? Dr. Christopher Murray, the head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the expert behind the flawed models that were used to force President Trump to shut down the economy in late March. Murray wrongly predicted that coronavirus patients would overwhelm the country’s health care system, causing widespread shortages of hospital beds and ventilators.

He’s been the leading voice for social distancing, including the closure of schools, and nags beachgoers and Republican governors daring to reopen their states against his wishes. Yet Murray has made no mention of the public health risk posed by the tens of thousands of protestors assembling for days on end and clearly in violation of his own rules.

Of course, Murray was not alone—experts and their media mouthpieces caused a case of collective whiplash as they attempted to explain their latest double-standard.

Propaganda Disguised as Science

But that wasn’t the only credibility-crushing moment in the past week. The Lancet, a leading scientific journal, retracted a study it published last month claiming the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine didn’t help coronavirus patients and in fact would kill people who use it. After Trump said he was taking the medicine, the Lancet rushed to post the contrarian paper—but it was pure propaganda.

“We can never forget the responsibility we have as researchers to scrupulously ensure that we rely on data sources that adhere to our high standards,” the Lancet wrote. “Based on this development, we can no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources. Due to this unfortunate development, the authors request that the paper be retracted.” The New England Journal of Medicine then retracted a similar study produced by the same source as the bogus hydroxychloroquine paper.

There’s more: Health experts this week have called into question two main assumptions about COVID-19—fever is a common symptom and asymptomatic carriers can spread the disease. The Centers for Disease Control lists fever as the top symptom for coronavirus; temperature screenings have been recommended as a way to detect infected people.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a key driver of coronavirus hysteria, said in April that he would make sure his kids didn’t have a fever before allowing them to visit his parents. But on Tuesday, Gottlieb, who is a board member for companies seeking to profit from the disease, admitted that only “a small percentage” of people with COVID-19 show a fever. “Temperature screening alone could provide a false assurance related to covid infection,” Gottlieb tweeted. “One recent study of patients presenting in New York showed about 70% of those sick enough to be hospitalized for Covid19 didn’t have fevers on triage at the hospital.”

This as companies, restaurants, and stores prepare to temperature-screen employees and customers in order to reopen their businesses.

The World Health Organization, which has fumbled every aspect of the crisis, twisted itself into another reputation-burning knot when it announced Monday that asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is “very rare.” The myth of asymptomatic spread is the top reason why experts demand healthy people wear face masks, so that shocking confession caused quite a kerfuffle.

By Tuesday morning, WHO officials were in damage control mode. “I used the phrase ‘very rare,’ and I think that that’s a misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare. I was referring to a small subset of studies,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, said in a backpedaling press conference. She quickly contradicted herself, citing one model that claimed 40 percent of transmissions are caused by asymptomatic carriers.

Give It a Rest, Already

All the pivoting and groveling and mind-changing by the credentialed class caught the attention of one observer: Tom Nichols, the expert-defender himself.

“I’m worried that this is going to be viewed as the politicization of expertise,” Nichols told Politico. He later tweeted that the hypocrisy on full display was “not only bad for experts, it makes me plenty mad.”

For the first time, Nichols couldn’t think of a way to blame Donald Trump.

But the politicization of science, Nichols will be even more upset to hear, will only get worse. On Wednesday, experts in STEM will participate in a daylong “strike” to protest racism and inequality. “Those of us who are not Black, particularly those of us who are white, play a key role in perpetuating systemic racism,” the experts organizing the stunt wrote on its website. “Unless you engage directly with eliminating racism, you are perpetuating it.”

Given their recent track record of failure on coronavirus, they should definitely give it a rest for at least one day.

After misleading Americans on a long list of consequential issues over the past few decades—from climate change to dietary guidelines and now the common cry of “systemic racism”—the body of expertise is twitching. In this case, I will even allow for coding its death as another coronavirus fatality.

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