Recently in The Federalist we have seen two articles regarding the use of experts in policy making and the place of experts in society. John Daniel Davidson wrote about expert predictions in regard to Obamacare, namely the experts in economics and healthcare who claim that the Affordable Care Act will save so much money or so many lives. These kind of expert predictions are based on theoretical economics (theoretical because the economics of the act have yet to be played out) and statistical wrangling (it is impossible to predict how many people will be “saved” by such legislation).
There is certainly not much science behind the ACA. No one really disputes that increased healthcare for individuals would be beneficial. Rather the dispute arises from how much we, as a society, are willing to pay and whether or not the ACA will be effective in reaching its goals. In essence, the ACA issue is more a problem of bureaucratic administration rather than science. To this end, experts can make as many predictions as they like but it will never be science, much less, “settled” (wink, wink), and based on history they will be far, far off the mark.
The second article came from Tom Nichols lamenting the loss of the value of experts in today’s Google culture where even YOU TOO! can be an instant expert with just a few mouse-clicks and mastery of a keyboard. With this I am sympathetic; it is a matter of knowledge versus the illusion of knowledge. Mr. Nichols has obviously studied the area of foreign relations his entire life. His wealth of knowledge (expertise) regarding the situation in Crimea (just an example) is going to be far superior to my own. Scrolling Wikipedia’s Crimea page will not put me on the same level as someone who has spent years accumulating and processing information, history, and knowledge.
I think, to some extent, everyone laments the current state of the Google-discourse that can be found on nearly every website and most spectacularly in the comments section following a news article. I don’t blame Mr. Nichols for his frustration but I believe that there is an important caveat to make in this regard.
Experts possess knowledge and information but this does not equate to wisdom. An expert’s knowledge of the Crimea situation may help inform a decision but it cannot tell us whether taking a particular action is right or wrong, good or evil. Such rationality is available to every thinking human being.
Right now, a pregnant woman is chained to a wall in Sudan for the “crime” of marrying a Christian man who is an American citizen. She is scheduled to be hanged following the birth of her son. The United States government has yet to even hint at making any kind of demands against this action. An expert in Sudanese culture and Islam may be able to explain to me why she is being put to death and particulars about the legal system of that nation. An immigration expert might be able to tell me that she is not technically an American citizen merely by marriage and that we have no legal right to interfere. An expert on international law and foreign relations may tell me that we have no right to act internationally to prevent this from happening. But none of that would matter to me, because the truth of the matter is that what is happening to this woman is wrong and evil and antithetical to everything that our nation professes to believe. None of the explanations would amount to the final judgment of right and wrong.
This is where experts get into trouble. Some – not all, of course – believe that knowledge and information equal an elevated position of making right/wrong, good/bad judgments. However, these judgments are moral and value-based judgments. They are within the comprehension of the average man or woman and, indeed, the average man or woman’s judgment in this matter holds just as much validity as any expert’s.
Part of the issue lies in the politicization of everything in our current society, including experts. The greater knowledge and information that experts possess often affords them the ability to be elevated by both media and politicians to positions that presuppose wisdom. Thus, the passive public may just sit on their haunches and suppose that an expert is a better judge of morality than themselves. But this is an illusion brought about by their elevation in the public eye. Politicians try to piggyback on the knowledge and credentials of an expert to say that their position is ultimately the informed and morally right decision.
Knowledge and information are good to have in complex situations but they are not the final arbiter and, in some cases, may matter nothing at all. The costs of the ACA can only be judged in terms of how much we are willing to pay to administer healthcare to an individual. Everyone wants to pay for the healthcare of a little girl with Leukemia; we might feel differently about the alcoholic wife-beater who is still smoking through his tracheotomy. Likewise, intervention in Crimea or in the case of the Sudanese Christian comes down to moral right/wrong value judgments. To this we welcome the information, knowledge, and predictions of the experts but the decision on how to act and whether or not to act is ultimately a decision that can be made through a rationality available to all average men and women.
Experts, in wanting to stay relevant, must realize this distinction between the possession of knowledge and the acting on rationality and wisdom. To be sure, Mr. Nichols never makes such a claim and Mr. Davidson gave us the wisdom of C.S. Lewis. However, in the media-saturated world, experts who blur these lines and profess themselves to be in greater possession of wisdom and right/wrong value judgments risk trivializing their years of hard work and insight.
Marc E. Fitch is the author of Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFO’s, and Bigfoot and is the recent recipient of the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and four children and works in the field of mental health.
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