Experts, Pseudo-Experts, and Other Progressive Conceits

The downloads folder on my computer is jammed full right now with endless charts depicting data and analysis of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic shocks rolling across the world, and naturally they can tell a widely varying story depending on the data quality and, most crucial of all, the assumptions that go into any model that generates projections about the future—even the near future. Experts and models disagree! Who’d a thunk it?

More importantly, what is a responsible president or prime minister to do? President Trump is naturally taking fire for not following “the experts,” even though it is a simple matter to point out that “the experts” (including even the sainted Dr. Fauci) were downplaying the risks of the Coronavirus as late as the end of January, when liberals, the media, and some “health experts” howled at the moon when Trump imposed the travel ban on China. All the while, the “experts” at the CDC were botching the rollout of a reliable COVID-19 test.

More broadly, though, it is worth lingering for a moment on the fetish for expertise, which runs especially strong among progressives ever since Woodrow Wilson at least. No one is against specialized expertise as such. After all, when you want heart surgery or a complex legal transaction processed, you will naturally turn to an expert surgeon or lawyer. (Or auto mechanic if you need your car fixed, etc.) But as you move beyond this kind of common sense specialized expertise to a more general style of expertise as applied to complex social and political phenomena, the scene changes.

The great examination of this issue is Philip Tetlock’s 2005 book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? The answer to his first subtitle—”How Good Is It?”—is, not very. In fact, rather terrible. He begins the book by pointing out the massive failure of nearly all the “experts” to foresee the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union. I could—in fact have, in my two Reagan books—go much further than Tetlock on this question, pointing out for example how bad the CIA’s analysis of the Soviet Union was right up to the very end. I don’t mean just off by 50 percent, but often completely wrong in the opposite direction. And yet liberals seemed shocked that the CIA didn’t have much of a handle on bin Laden or Iraq back in 2001 and 2002.

While it is perfectly sensible to seek improvements in technical expertise and its integration into decision making by our political leaders, this misses the main point. For a century now, progressives have represented expertise as a distinct claim to rightful rule, akin to the classical claims on behalf of democracy and aristocracy. You can see this at work right now in the deep thinkers who are saying that Joe Biden ought to pick Bill Gates as his running mate, or that Dr. Fauci should be made president by acclamation. The progressive conceit of expertise lies at the heart of a lot of the progressive contempt for the non-credentialled “deplorables” of “flyover country” who, progressives think, don’t deserve self-government.

Whenever a progressive says we should “follow the evidence” because we must have “evidence-based policy-making,” you should reach for your wallet (for starters). Because today we all too often have the opposite: policy-based evidence-making. This is especially true in the whole climate change circus, but it is also quite evident now in the virus crisis. Remember that Imperial College London “model” that predicted 250,000 deaths in the UK, subsequently scaled back to 20,000? The person behind that model, Neil Ferguson, gave an interview to the Financial Times today that includes this shocking admission that his model was a clear instance of policy-based evidence making:

“The paper came out that day partly because there was pressure on government to be showing the modelling informing policymaking, so we worked very hard to get that paper out at that time.”

To which the Financial Times comments:

The above implies the government was aware of the potential death toll – or the one being projected by the scientists on their advisory committee, anyway – but had not considered a drastic lockdown strategy until it became clear that the likely number of deaths from any other strategy would not be seen as politically acceptable. It seems, therefore, that the paper was published at that time partly to help justify a change in the messaging. A “U-turn” doesn’t seem like quite the right term, therefore, for what happened. 

It is possible that when the dust settles months from now, a careful review of everything from the evidence, data handling, bureaucratic miasma, practical decisions, and economic consequences might reveal not merely mistakes and failures but possibly mistakes and failures on a scandalous scale.

The point is: It is not “anti-science” to be skeptical of claims to expertise in social and political matters. In fact I wouldn’t much trust a leader who wasn’t skeptical.

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