The pandemic has raised in a very pointed way an important question for American democracy: What is the proper role of experts?
Distrust of our leaders, the press and experts seems to be running high these days, which of course is lamented by our elite class from which they are drawn. Hillary Clinton, for example, says in her political memoir that it is wrong to sow distrust toward people on whom we need to rely: “our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.”
Why is distrust so high these days? Elite analysts have offered many explanations including the internet, a fractured news media, a sudden and inexplicable rise in conspiracy theories and much else that might be lumped under the category of pop psychology. Each of these explanations locates the problem with the great unwashed masses in America who do not understand or adequately appreciate the vital contribution of experts.
Perhaps there is a simpler explanation:
- Republican national security experts predicted a host of national security calamities would occur if Donald Trump were elected president—none of which occurred.
- Well-known economists predicted a host of economic calamities which would occur if Mr. Trump were elected—none of which occurred.
- Public officials and the press asserted for three years that Mr. Trump colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election—which he did not.
- Scientific experts said COVID-19 was nothing to be worried about, that it was a deadly threat, that no masks were required, that masks were required, that two masks were required, that businesses of only certain types should be shut down, that social distancing of six feet was needed, that social distancing of three feet was needed, and that following the teachers’ union input, schools should be closed for in-class instruction.
- Scientists signed a letter that said COVID-19 could not have originated in the Wuhan lab in China—which it apparently did.
- A letter signed by intelligence community experts said that Hunter Biden’s laptop was likely Russian disinformation—which it was not.
- Public officials banned all large outdoor gatherings for health reasons but exempted Black Lives Matters protests from the ban.
- Public officials and the press said that Antifa riots in 2020 were “largely peaceful”—which they were not.
- Public officials and the press have argued that sanctuary city policies will make their cities safer—which they do not.
- Foreign policy experts predicted for many years that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would result in a catastrophic outburst of violence from the so-called “Arab street”—which it did not.
- Social media companies have said with a straight face they do not unfairly target conservative opinions—which everyone knows they do
- Public officials and the media said defunding the police would make cities safer and better places to live—which it has not.
- Political leaders and the press said that Lafayette Park was cleared of peaceful protestors (where 49 officers were injured) for a Mr. Trump photo op — which it was not.
- Public officials said the U. S. Postal Service deliberately slowed the mail to help Mr. Trump’s re-election bid — which it did not.
- Public officials and the press have said hate crimes against Asian-Americans have increased because Mr. Trump labeled COVID-19 as the “China virus” — though photographs of most perpetrators do not look much like the typical Donald Trump voter.
Time would run out before the examples, which could be multiplied under this head. And more is on the way:
- The Afghan government will survive once all U.S. troops are withdrawn
- The Biden administration’s disastrous policy on the southern border was caused by Mr. Trump and is on the way toward being resolved
- We can run up a debt of ever more trillions of dollars, even during a massive economic expansion, with no harmful inflationary or other long-term consequences
What should we make of this?
Before elites blame the American people for their ignorance and mistrust, they should take a long look at themselves in the mirror. Too much of what has been passed off as expert opinion has been little more than a tissue of half-truths, unexamined conventional wisdom, and ideological prejudice.
Second, there of course remains a strong and continuing need for experts. When we see our doctors, for example, we usually do — and should — trust their counsel. But here is the point. We have a well-earned sense that our doctors have our best interests at heart. Many Americans have lost this sense about our public officials, the press and public policy experts. And it is not hard to see why.
Elites and elite experts have a greater obligation than simply to expect people to defer to their superior status. The value of expertise consists in more than qualifications alone; it requires as well that experts have the best interests at heart of those to whom they offer their expertise, including and especially speaking the truth. Such trust does not arise miraculously from the qualifications of experts; it must be earned.
• Jeff Bergner served in the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. His most recent book is “The Vanishing Congress: Reflections on Politics in Washington.”
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