Back when he was writing a column for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page (Best of the Web Today) instead of editing it, James Taranto had a daily feature called “What Would We Do Without Experts?” It, clearly, mocked absurd expert opinions, and reminded us that “experts” are neither Solomonic nor oracular.

I recently had a flashback to my early engineering days, when “memes” were photocopied sheets of paper passed around from person to person. The one accompanying this article was particularly amusing. (FTR, I worked in the Weights group at the time).

Back then, as a lesson about tunnel vision and absolutism, it served. Today, it rebuts the blind “trust the experts!” attitude that many demand when it comes to public policy. With a stress on “blind.” Often enough, a heterodox opinion, even a supported one, is yelled down with “you’re not an expert in ___ so shut up. Idiot.”

There are several angles at play. First, there’s the “expert opinions may differ” aspect. Few people of any degree of relevant knowledge will dispute things like gravity and the roughly spherical shape of the Earth, but newer “science” like COVID-19 and global warming are fields where uncertainties, differences of opinion, and rapidly evolving knowledge can tip appeals-to-expertise into the “conclusion shopping” realm, where people find experts that concur with their predilections, cite them as gospel, and call anyone who has even the slightest disagreement “science deniers.”

That’s an aside to another, more critical matter: that of policy-making. Experts are wont to prioritize their expertise the offering their recommendations. A dermatologist will tell you to dip yourself in a vat of SPF 9000 every morning, while an immunologist will tell you to soak up a good bit of Vitamin-D-producing sunshine every day.

In the time of COVID, experts offer advice and recommendations in their comfort zone, i.e. slowing the spread of the virus. Their expertise, however, is not universal – they aren’t versed on economic impact, on effects on public health in other forms, including mental health, education impact, the myriad aspects of the economy, and countless other consequences of the virus-mitigation efforts. More germanely, they aren’t accountable for those consequences.

Policy makers are, so it falls upon policy makers to weigh the experts’ recommendations against all the other factors (and recommendations of experts in other fields). Just as an airplane’s design is ultimately managed by project engineers and managers, rather than specialists, a policy decision isn’t a simple “listen to the experts” deference.

The proto-meme concludes with,

When A Systems Engineer Does Not Negotiate Design Compromises, Engineers Design Their Dream Airplanes

When a politician says he’s going to “listen to the experts,” what is he really telling us? Is he claiming that his decisions won’t involve considerations outside the experts’ bailiwick? That the many other variables and negative consequences won’t be given their due? That policy will be driven by the experts’ desires, not the citizens’ needs?

Is he abandoning his “buck stops here” duty to be the decision maker?

Is he conclusion-shopping to bias his policies toward that which is favored by his side of the political aisle, which seems to be too common during this pandemic?

Good leaders understand that science-experts’ views are informed, but also “informed” by their expertise. Theirs is not to decide policy, but to provide inputs toward the leader’s policy decisions.

And, good leaders rein in their experts, so that they don’t run wild with assertions focused solely on their “dream design.”

Yes, Dr. Fauci, I’m talking about you.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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