Should We Trust Experts To Think For Us?
Updated: May 7, 2020
Anti-intellectualism is dangerous, but blindly trusting “smart” people may not be such a great idea, either
These days, it’s not popular to second-guess smart people.
Ever since a populist wave swept Donald Trump into office and #Brexit upended Europe, the educated class has ridiculed anyone who questions the scientists, politicians, economists, and other technocrats who steer governments and society. Now, in the midst of the greatest public health crisis in modern history, the divide between those who doubt “experts” and those who believe anything they say has become wider than ever.
Last week, I found out just how wide the chasm is.
For the past month I’ve had nagging concerns about whether our response to the Coronavirus pandemic may be inflicting greater harm than the virus, itself. I’ve had friendly Facebook debates on the subject with my friend, Adam. He’a a college-educated entertainment executive who thinks lockdown protesters are “selfish” for wanting to get back to work so they can feed their families. After hitting a wall in our latest exchange, I sent him a link to a Medium article I wrote, hoping it might help him understand the “other side” more clearly. Five minutes later, this is what I got:
“I don’t think you or I or anyone else knows more than the world’s health experts. You are not an epidemiologist. The lockdowns need to continue. The collective questioning by deniers and skeptics will end up killing more people. Stop adding to the chorus of the uneducated. Let the experts tell us what to do.”
Let the experts tell us what to do? Was he serious?
“But we’ve been following experts for years,” I wrote back. “On the economy, on geopolitics, on health care, on just about everything. How has listening to them worked out for us?”
“Wrong. The problem is too many people like you DON’T listen to experts. That’s why the world is a mess now.”
Now, whether you think the lockdowns should end tomorrow or you think they should continue through summer is beside the point. We’re all entitled to our opinion. What matters is that Adam’s response exemplifies how much power and influence experts have, especially over the educated class. Experts not only dictate what many people think, but whether they choose to think at all.
Just to be clear, I’m not an anti-intellectual by any stretch. I majored in international relations at Princeton University, and I graduated from Harvard Law School, where I served as an editor on the Law Review. I believe in science, I value intellect, and I respect the opinions of others who have more knowledge and skill in a given field than I do. But the real world has taught me something that I never learned at Ivy League schools: it’s okay to listen to experts. It’s notokay to believe whatever they tell us.
Given what’s unfolded in the U.S. over the past two decades, the fact that anyone in this country is comfortable trusting experts blindly is nothing less than astonishing. After all, the people with skills and know-how have gifted us with some pretty spectacular fails.
A president relied on military intelligence to invade a country that had weapons of mass destruction — even though those weapons didn’t really exist. The Federal Reserve missed warning signs of the 2008 financial crisis, and the Treasury Secretary even swore that the economy was the best he’d seen in decades — as rot from subprime mortgages was quietly eating people alive. The head of the E.P.A. assured first responders that the air was safe to breathe following the worst terrorist attack in history — even though hundreds would later die of cancer. Pollsters convinced voters that a candidate would win the White House by double-digits — even though she would lose the election,
Americans have repeatedly trusted people with “expertise” who confidently presented a reality that turned out to be false. In each case, a not-insignificant chunk of average people with common sense saw a completely different reality and spoke up — but their voices were disregarded. They were called crazy. Conspiracy theorists. Nutjobs. Why?
Because they weren’t experts.
Of course, this doesn’t mean experts are wrong about everything; they’re often right about a lot of things. They just have a habit of being wrong about issues and events that have had the greatest impact on our lives. Their errors cost hundreds of thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and exacerbated hatred in a country that was already bitterly divided. These are facts that shouldn’t be lightly tossed aside — or forgotten.
So who are these experts that we’re supposed to trust? Technically, an expert is anyone whose knowledge, skills, and experience in a particular field convince us to listen to them. Experts can be heads of intelligence agencies, heads of central banks, lawyers, economists, doctors, scientists, and professors. They are the people who lead us, guide us, and steer world events.
The problem is that experts also tend to lead, guide, and steer each other. This traps them in an echo chamber of “groupthink” that reinforces the opinions of the majority of their peers. In other words, e’re not supposed to question experts, and they aren’t even encouraged to question each other. Even scientists can be convinced to play along with the groupthink.
Studies in the 1930s established that smoking posed a significant health risk, yet most doctors ignored the evidence and embraced the “science” pedaled by tobacco companies and Madison Avenue. Doctors even lit up cigarettes in magazine ads. As a result, most Americans believed that smoking was relatively safe because most experts assured them that it was — until the 1960s, when a majority of experts finally decided it wasn’t.
And if the media supports an expert? That’s when we shut off our brains completely. If we watch a You Tube video of a frumpy scientist from a mid-tier university, we’re conditioned to doubt what he says. We might even think it’s fake news. But put a well-dressed man on CNN with an Ivy League degree, and he becomes a trusted authority. We’re encouraged to believe whatever this man says. He can convince us that even if the sky “appears” to be blue, it’s actually green.
Behold the power of the expert.
But there’s a darker side to expert worship that my exchange with Adam revealed. Beneath his glib response was a warning that questioning what experts tell us is not only silly; it’s dangerous. Our skepticism makes us a bad citizen and a menace to society. In fact, the reason we’re flirting with multi-level disaster now isn’t because we’ve listened to experts, but because too many of us have ignored their advice. This means that when things go wrong, it’s not their fault; it’s our fault. I see this play out with people like Adam.
He knows we’re trapped in a shit show that’s only getting worse. He rants about wealth inequality, political corruption, climate change, a toxic health care system, and other signs of slow motion collapse. But if an expert tells him these things are happening because we’ve ignored their guidance, he’ll believe them.
He’ll point to governments that have ignored scientists’ warnings about greenhouse gases — but he’ll forget that economists have guided us into lives burdened by debt and inflation, foreign relations experts have kept us mired in one pointless war after another, and technocrats crafted legislation that made our broken health care system even more dependent on private insurers. He’ll convince himself that these problems were caused by one party’s skewed values or one president’s mis-steps.
Adam will forget that experts have been guiding our ship from one disaster to the next for decades, regardless of who’s elected or which party is in charge.
Worst of all, experts keep us in fear, warning us that we’ll pay dearly if we ignore their guidance — especially when there’s a crisis. Because when we’re scared witless, we’re more helpless. And vulnerable. That’s when we need someone to protect us and give us answers and assurances.
This is the world we’ve slipped into, one crisis at a time. After 9/11, security experts told us that we had to trade our freedoms for safety. Now public health experts warn that a biological contagion requires us to trade more of our freedoms andour livelihoods, social interactions, and sanity for safety. They tell us that what we’ll gain is worth these sacrifices.
Are they right? Maybe, maybe not. Only time will tell. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to ask questions along the way. After all, experts are only human. Like the rest of us, they can make mistakes. They deserve to be heard, and we should definitely listen to them.
But completely surrendering our willingness to think for ourselves is dangerous. Because no person or institution deserves our blind trust — especially when it comes to issues that impact our lives on the most fundamental levels.
I’m not sure know how we got to this place, putting ourselves on auto-pilot and allowing more “qualified” people to steer our brains. Maybe trusting others allow us to avoid responsibility for our own decisions. Maybe we have so little confidence in our intellect and common sense that we don’t feel comfortable relying on them. Maybe a shoddy educational system has robbed many of us of the ability to think, increasing our reliance on experts and putting us in some crazy feedback loop.
I don’t have the answers. I just know that living in a world like this can make a thinking, curious mind feel incredibly lonely.
I cling to the hope that one day Adam and others like him will see the dangers of blindly trusting others with decisions that affect all of us. I hope he’ll see how their advice has destroyed our standard of living with each market crash and stripped us of our civil liberties, one crisis at a time. But another part of me knows that some “trust bubbles” are just too thick to be penetrated by thought or reason, at least right now.
I don't know what it will take to get more people to start thinking for themselves. But if Adam is any indication, we’ve got a long way to go.