What Do We Do with “Experts”? Human Nature is the Key to the Answer

I happened to catch a couple of minutes of the Rush Limbaugh program, in which he was playing some snippets from an interview of Kurt Anderson and Charlie Rose on PBS, on the subject of Anderson’s new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.  The theme of the books seems to center on how conservative talk radio has mislead so many people in the United States, but I want to focus on a sub-theme, mentioned in the interview, in which Anderson is asked a question by Rose: “What happens when somebody like National Security Council or the national security intelligence apparatus recommends something based on its hard-nosed reality, and the president doesn’t believe it because he’s created this disrespect for what these people have usually it depended on or –.”  Anderson responds: “Right. And there are decent people of integrity on the right, what I call true conservatives, who are coming out and have been coming out and saying, “We are culpable for convincing our followers that to distrust reality with which –.”  

The heart of this particular issue I think has to do with why people don’t believe “experts” as much as they once did.  And that takes us back to the very beginning of the push for experts in government.  This took place during the Progressive Era (but had already seen some development in France and Germany in the late 1899s) in America.  Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist by training, and who had studied in Germany under Johann Bluntschli (I know, who was he?), wrote extensively about the need for a new way of governing, due to our new situation of industrialization, urbanization and complexity of problems.  As early as the 1880s, he was calling our constitutional system essentially obsolete and incapable of meeting the new problems.  He instead called for greater centralization in government, the formation of bureaucratic agencies consisting of experts who would possess the required scientific (important qualifier) knowledge and who would be apolitical and therefore unbiased.

In Europe and America at that time (from the 1830s to roughly the mid-1900s), we had already been experiencing the “Scientism” that had exalted the kind of alleged rational and methodologically sound reasoning brought by the commitment to science itself.  Why not, Wilson and others believed, bring this way of thinking and acting into government.  Why not create cadres of experts to tell us what is true and then tell us what to do?  It would be for our own good, they said.  And this approach has become the rule in government rather than the exception, especially since the New Deal.

So what is wrong with this way of thinking, which is still very much embraced by many people, on the Left and on the Right?  After all, isn’t knowledge important, even crucial, in policy making?  If we know what the problem is, we stand a better chance of finding efficient, fair and responsive solutions–don’t we?  The answers are not as easy as we might think.  On the one hand, we do and should always desire knowledge relevant to public problems that arise.  No one would deny this, I don’t believe.  But on the other hand, a real problem arises in terms of (1) who is tasked with achieving this knowledge; (2) do they have a monopoly on so-called truth; (3) what are their presuppositions–in this case, ideological ones, as they seek truth–or as they don’t do so, depending; (4) in what kind of political environment do such experts work that might skew their work and lead to incentives to distort truth; and (5) do experts have authority to force citizens to do or not do something and is that authority accountable to those whom we elect–or I could even ask whether the political body (whom we elect) ought to be tasked with discovering relevant truth, instead of the expert bureaucrat?  That’s quite a list of questions.  Where to begin?

The foundational truth that may help us the most in answering at least most of the questions above is the question of human nature.  Let’s stipulate that humans are the same (generally) in whatever context they find themselves.  Whether in private or public sectors, they are no more or less subject to the same characteristics of every other human–again, in general, exceptions understood.  The Christian idea of human nature is simple: since the Fall every human being is born with a sin nature and will, as a result, tend to sin. Sins will differ with one’s specific makeup and environment, but the tendency is still present.  The implication of that principle is that, unless some kind of “defeater” is present, like common grace for the non-believer or the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer, even in political environments that are supposedly neutral, self-interest or selfishness will exist among the employees to some degree, in greater or lesser numbers and to a greater or lesser extent.  If the agency environment is structured such that it incentivizes bad behavior, some bureaucrats (experts in some cases) will tend to distort information, depending on their ideological bent and their desire to move up the career ladder or at the least, to keep their jobs, with minimal conflict.

In such cases, truth may well be distorted, and significantly.  The distortion is greater the larger the group of so-called experts and the more layers of bureaucracy one finds.  On top of that, we face the general problem of knowledge.  It is simply impossible for any one person or even a few to possess the requisite amount and quality of knowledge to make the best decisions for everyone else. If the experts are working in a highly centralized agency, this is even more the case.  This is why so many political economists decry central planning.  It is both impossible and produces an environment in which ideological commitments can also distort outcomes.

What I am saying then is that in many cases, we have every reason to be at least a little skeptical when experts in government purport to tell us how we should live and what is best for us.  In some cases, they might be correct, but in many, they simply don’t know, though they insist they do.  The “Deep State” is really nothing more than bureaucrats (in most instances) who have been ensconced in some agency and who are alleged experts in some area (security, environmental problems, poverty, consumer protection, safety, etc, etc.).  They usually are career bureaucrats who are protected from firing by Civil Service statutes and regulations, so who cannot be fired (except to murder–I say that only partially tongue-in-cheek).  If they were hired during certain eras of long presidencies, they may become ideologically driven to some degree or other.  Or they may feel threatened by a new administration–especially one that asserts its goal is to “drain the swamp.”  Thus they may give bad information, either publicly or through leaks.

So just because an alleged government expert says climate change is wholly man-made and will kill us all, does not automatically mean he/she is right.  Even if an entire government agency said the same thing, we are obligated to seek the possible full truth by listening to and weighing evidence to the contrary.  We are not obligated to believe a government official just because he said it and is from the government.

In the end, Kurt Anderson’s statement is simplistic at best and just wrong at worst.  Reality is not reality simply because and expert tells us it is.  As citizens our obligation–if we are to be informed –is to do the best we can to discover the truth, through the best available means.*  I am not arguing that we have to become immersed in every issue that arises, but particularly those that affect us most directly or those most important.  Remember, truth is the goal, not political ideological purity.


*Note:  That also means even when we see “studies” cited, we ideally should take a look at the methodology of the study and its actual results, not relying on a journalistic account–such as that “one is 100% more likely to succumb to some diseases if we eat this or that.”  If the initial chance was say .000001, then 100% of that is .000002–not very much, to say the least.  Eat up!

5 thoughts on “What Do We Do with “Experts”? Human Nature is the Key to the Answer”

  1. “I am not arguing that we have to become immersed in every issue that arises, but particularly those that affect us most directly or those most important.”

    I feel like this statement is why we have experts. We need people who are immersed in the mundane and obscure parts of governance, even if we don’t feel they particularly affect us at the moment, or we risk having no way of taking an informed position on a problem.

    “What I am saying then is that in many cases, we have every reason to be at least a little skeptical when experts in government purport to tell us how we should live and what is best for us. In some cases, they might be correct, but in many, they simply don’t know, though they insist they do.”

    I’m fine with skepticism, but I don’t think Rush Limbaugh or even the average American citizen is using the word properly in most discussions. Skepticism isn’t rejection or denial, it’s hesitation. We don’t ignore or declare irrelevant the things that we are skeptical about, but this is exactly what people who advocate ‘skepticism’ would have you do. Limbaugh wants you to think the “Deep State” is lying about Trump, so nothing should be done about what we learn from anonymous sources. In essence, Limbaugh is arguing for denialism or radical doubt.

    So, too, with climate science. It would be right to be skeptical of Mr. Al Gore, one guy who made a movie. It might even be sensible to ignore Mr. Gore and dismiss his claims. But there is a problem with skepticism if it means that, in the face of mounting evidence and argument, we continue to just ignore people who present things we do not want to hear. Ignoring those who argue that climate change is a real threat, or dismissing them as alarmists, is using skepticism as an excuse to disengage with their arguments.

    Yet this is what Mr. Limbaugh advocates: Earlier this week I recall him having a passionate discussion with a caller about how all of the arguments for climate change are not based on data, but purely “from models.” Limbaugh is no climate scientist. Yet he is evidently convinced of his own expertise in this area to encourage his listeners to reject ANY argument they disagree with on this topic as elitist gobbledygook.

    “Remember, truth is the goal, not political ideological purity.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I am just worried that in our current political climate some people are embracing radical skepticism to avoid unpleasant truths and protect their political ideologies.

    1. Grateful for Theophilus’ helpful pushback on the difference between skepticism and denialism. After watching the interview in question, I can’t see much to suggest Rose or Anderson have any problem with healthy skepticism (link/transcript below). Their fundamental concern is simply of citizens being enabled/encouraged to preemptively dismiss information with which they disagree. Building an anti-government critique off incomplete quotes from Limbaugh actually comes across as evidence for their point.

      I do understand, Dr. Clauson, that Rose & Anderson trust most government institutions more than you, and that you find this problematic. What I don’t get is why you find that disagreement troublesome enough to ignore the broader substance of what they have to say, or where you might find considerable agreement. (Anderson makes an assertive critique of 1960s cultural relativism, for example.) What does that have to do with pursuing truth over political ideological purity?

      Transcript from 3:56—6:00 (https://charlierose.com/videos/30859)
      Anderson: There’s probably no rolling it back. That the belief that whatever I want to believe to be true, I’m going to believe to be true. That we no longer have an establishment setting down a set of shared, factual, empirical agreement. That that may not be—that there may not be a hopeful end to where “Oh no, it’ll go back to the way it was.”
      Rose: What’s also—and I’m not sure whether this is new or not. But you have a President of the United States saying ‘What people are telling you is not true. It’s fake news. And you can’t believe “the media.”‘
      Anderson: Well, that anything that is inconvenient to me or that, with which I disagree, is fake. I mean, that’s…
      Rose: And there’s no objective statement we can look at (i.e. Daniel Patrick Moynihan ‘facts don’t lie’)
      Anderson: Which is dangerous. Which is a dangerous place.
      Rose: Very dangerous. Because, among other things—and this has been pointed out. What happens when someone like the National Security Council, or the national intelligence apparatus—however it might exist—recommends something, based on its hard-nosed reality, and the president doesn’t believe it, because he’s created this disrespect, for what people we have depended on are telling us.
      Anderson: Right. And there are people, there are, decent people of integrity on the right—what I call the true conservatives—who are coming out, and have been coming out, and saying “We are culpable for convincing our followers that—to distrust reality with which they disagree.” And it really, it’s been going on, again, through, the media, through talk radio, through talk television, through the internet, to enable people to make them think that they are entitled to their own facts. And if a climate scientist, or a national security expert, comes on and says “No, no, no…here are the facts.” “No I don’t have to believe that, because it doesn’t conform with my opinion.”

    2. It seems you might be using the particular words I used in order to say that in most cases those “experts” on the more liberal side are more believable than those on the opposite ideological side–or those who reach conclusions more consistent with a more conservative idea. But bear in mind that I was talking about so-called experts in government agencies, who operate in a peculiar institutional environment that may make them more susceptible to biases. And if over a long period of time Federal agencies have accumulated more and more employees on one ideological side, then that bias is much greater in one direction.

      And there is nothing wrong with reading or hearing experts, but we ought to take what they say with a healthy does of critical thought.

      1. Absolutely. Critical thinking is, well, critical. I just thought it was worth making the point that skepticism isn’t an argument on its own against someone’s position. That was all I meant.

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