Global Health Perspectives Science and Culture

The Indignity of Expertise

How our reflexive mistrust of authority hurts America

By E.E. Robakis

Defiance is a deeply American trait, rendered, for better or worse, into a national pastime. Americans are chronically, debilitatingly anti-authority; this has deep roots in the colonization of North America by Europeans and the establishment of this country as a “safe haven” from tyrannical governments, and since then it has metastasized into an unwillingness to take what is good for us. Not only do we mistrust our government — as though it is a foreign entity, a monolith somehow made up of malign alien creatures instead of human beings — we also tend to mistrust anyone or anything who purports to know more about something than we do.

In the time of Covid-19, this proclivity towards self-destructive defiance has become devastatingly obvious as dangerous misinformation continues to circulate. Why, in the country that is the world’s leader in science and technology, are dazzling displays of the Dunning-Kruger effect so prevalent? Never mind that thousands of physicians begged everyone to take this disease seriously; never mind that epidemiologists exhorted everyone to stay home, to wear masks; never mind the increasing likelihoodthat, by the end of this, we will all know someone who died from this disease. A disconcerting number of Americans have decided that watching a handful of YouTube videos qualifies as research, and that a desultory wander down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole has the same value and degree of factual accuracy as the consensus of experts who have hundreds of years of experience and education accumulated among them.

The difference between informed skepticism and reflexive contrarianism lies in their potential: the former can move things forward, the latter is inherently regressive and constraining by nature.

Expert consensus is not always perfect, of course. There have always been, and always will be, paradigm shifts. Skepticism and good science are vital to moving knowledge forward, to nurturing the fresh bloom of new ideas and preventing the ossification of theory into dogma. Open-minded willingness to entertain new ideas is how our understanding of Covid-19 and its treatments evolve every day; these shifts are not the proof of incompetence that some people think they are, but a poignant case study in the beautiful and messy scientific process by which we improve both theory and practice, piece by piece. On an individual level, professionals certainly can be and are wrong about things. But an international group of knowledgeable people reaching consensus about a large-scale phenomenon is powerful — it means many experienced and well-trained minds have focused on an issue, looked at alternatives, and come to the same conclusion. When compared to a small group of non-experts, who has a better chance of being right?

Right now, some Americans have decided that personal opinion derived from a couple of hours of Googling merits equal weight as expert consensus on a topic. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Anecdotes are only data points, stars in a cosmos of information.

Take a moment to think about something that you consider yourself to be an expert in: maybe your profession, maybe not. Consider the years have you spent learning, reading, and thinking deeply about that topic; the conversations you’ve had with other people who are interested in it, or even the time you have spent practicing and honing a skill. Perhaps you’ve spent years on the job or at school to improve your abilities. Now think about what it would be like to argue about that thing with someone who, having watched a few videos, skimmed some pamphlets, or swiped through a curious Instagram post, insisted not only that they know more than you, but that you are maliciously covering up the truth out of selfishness or a desire to hurt people.

Many of us consider ourselves experts in something, and demand the dignity that comes with that expertise. Yet we balk at affording that same respect to others. Anti-vaccine mothers insist that they be considered experts in their own children, but cannot seem to acknowledge that there is a huge group of researchers and doctors whose expertise includes not only these mothers’ children, but all vaccinated and unvaccinated children. A small but vocal contingent of Americans are refusing to wear masks, bellowing that the pandemic is overblown, as though they have access to some piece of information — and the background to understand it and its place within a constellation of complex phenomena — that the world’s epidemiologists don’t possess. We all want to be considered experts in something, but nobody wants to admit that anyone else can be one too.

One of the fundamental ideas underlying our mistrust of professionals is that they are somehow unwilling or unable to access or understand whatever alternative theories are being peddled. This is how the president of the United States genuinely believed that he was giving highly trained doctors and specialists new, good ideas about ways to try to treat the coronavirus and why, in spite of his own lack of experience in governance, he becomes belligerent when his actions and policies are questioned. So much of his rise in popularity is attributable to the fact that this inexperience was viewed as an asset rather than a liability, and the belief that dealing in real estate somehow imbues someone with knowledge that is universally transferrable to any other topic. This attitude toward experience and expertise is downright dangerous when hiring someone to do delicate, complex jobs in many fields.

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Columbus coronavirus protests at the Ohio Statehouse, 2020–04–18. Photo by Ɱ (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is notable that the US is the only country in the world that had a sizable group of people demonstrating for the right to die at the hand of ignorance. Sometimes it seems like the default position for Americans is to mistrust everyone, but actually, it isn’t. We trust experts every day in ways big and small: we put ourselves and our lives in the hands of automakers, food producers, mechanics, architects, and engineers, without ascribing nefarious motivations to them. Some people have made an opaque calculus that has left some types of expertise worthy of respect while others are not. However, not everyone is equally equipped to tackle every problem, and that’s okay.

It is not the job of highly competent professionals to address every fringe idea as though it is reasonable, and it is unfortunate that they often must. A refusal to engage is paradoxically seen as both complicity and avoidance of some real, dangerous “truth.” This is the indignity of expertise: in America, education and competence are rewarded with derision, defiance, and a demand that every idea, no matter how absurd, be taken seriously. Vital, time-sensitive conversations are derailed as we wait for experts to put out fires started by people who see their own petulance as patriotic exercising of freedoms instead of acknowledging the perfectly logical truth that it is possible for some people to know more about a given topic than others. As we wait for these individuals to catch up, we continue to waste precious time and resources.

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Assistance to Georgia for diagnostics of COVID-19. IAEA ImageBank. (CC BY 2.0)

And now, in this pandemic, when American defiance seems to have reached the absolute peak of its absurdity, the indignities are thus: doctors, having been forced to the frontlines of a war they did not ask for, with neither sufficient supplies nor support, resorted to writing social media posts pleading for people to stay home, or at least wear masks, and trust the scientific process, because their own government would neither affirm nor amplify their expertise. Despite sustained, fervent warnings from an international chorus of professionals, states have re-opened, and people are becoming sick. These sick people, including the president himself, who take their lives and the lives of others into their own hands by virtue of their dismissiveness and defiance, anxiously haul their failing and infectious bodies to these same pleading doctors, seeking salvation under the protective wing of modern medicine, which itself has been scaffolded by centuries of expert consensus. There, they are tended to, reaping the benefits of the years of education of their physicians and nurses, putting their caretakers at risk and pulling resources from others who fell ill even though they did everything right, because sometimes that is just how disease works. And in the end, if they are part of an incredibly lucky group of people, they are healed thanks to the help of the very people they stubbornly mistrusted.

The difference between informed skepticism and reflexive contrarianism lies in their potential: the former can move things forward, the latter is inherently regressive and constraining by nature. Though Covid-19 is a stark illustration of the dangers of automatic mistrust of scientists, public health experts, and economists, this suspiciousness is a pervasive problemin America. Fortunately, we do not have to wait for disaster to strike to learnthe information that is freely available. We do not have to wait for our global standings in educationeconomy, and healthcare to continue to drop. We can heed the klaxons that experts have been sounding for a long time, on Covid and many other issues, and make the choice to act responsibly today.

You are free to republish this article with author attribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license does not extend to the images, which are used under separate licenses and may have different copyright statuses.

Cover Photo: The Vogt group ca. 1906. Public Domain.