A key battleground of the 21st-century culture war is the influence that experts should have in important national decisions such as environmental and pandemic policies. We should listen to experts a lot, but they are undermining themselves through their desire to exert influence beyond their area of specialization. Experts’ lack of self-awareness constitutes a threat to the public interest.
Several scientific journals have been exemplars of how experts can contribute positively and negatively to the public discourse. Their websites contain a wealth of cutting-edge information about Covid-19 produced by the world’s foremost scientific experts.
This knowledge is central to government pandemic responses. Global Covid-19 are much smaller than in historical pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, and the expert views made available by leading technical journals have been critical to keeping the death rate down.
Had policymakers decided to follow their gut and eschew the self-serving technocratic mumbo jumbo produced by these prestigious publications, then as many simulations published in these journals would suggest, we would be on the brink of a catastrophe.
In principle, Covid-19 should allow us to make a very easy case about the importance of listening to experts. Yet leading scientific journals unwittingly shot themselves in the foot in various 2020 editorials attacking incumbent US president Donald Trump.
Most of the editorials are entirely reasonable: they describe the policy mistakes that US decision-makers have made in handling the pandemic, based on each journal board’s deep expertise in public health.
The boards err, however, when they make political demands. They explicitly state that Trump must be voted out for the good of the nation.
The editorial boards of leading scientific journals are a collection of technical experts in fields like virology and epidemiology, yet they possess no more expertise than the average voter in holistically evaluating the efforts of the Trump administration.
Hypothetically, it could be that the brilliance of his economic, social, and foreign policies compensate for the Covid-19 debacle, and the board is wrong to presume that their opinion matters significantly more than that of others in this regard.
Had they, as ordinary unaffiliated citizens, written an op-ed demanding that Trump be ousted, citing the aforementioned errors in managing the pandemic, then they would have retained their credibility as reliable sources of knowledge on the coronavirus. Yet by publishing the editorial in their capacity as editors of a prestigious scientific journal, and leveraging their medical platform to make an ostensibly non-medical argument, they have made ordinary people trust them less.
For example, it is reasonable for voters to wonder if Trump’s decision to decrease federal funding for scientific research has influenced such editorials, encouraging their authors to step out of their lane. In some cases, the editorial board’s lack of self-awareness is exemplified by accusations that Trump has politicized government agencies, as they themselves explicitly politicize their scientific journals.
Unfortunately, there are many other examples of experts using their hard-earned and entirely merited power in their area of specialization to influence decisions in other areas. In a world where people generally trust experts, this is tolerable. But today, skepticism toward experts is so rampant that anything that undermines the public’s trust in them has serious consequences.
As an illustration, many people are reluctant to get a Covid-19 vaccination for reasons verging on the absurd, constituting a major threat to public health. The Australian government’s vaccine rollout frequently asked questions section has an entry: “Is it true? Can Covid-19 vaccines connect me to the internet?” reflecting the lack of faith some people have in scientists.
After several decades of feeling disenfranchised by elite technocrats, a large percentage of the population has begun to wonder if experts exploit their influence to advance their personal agendas.
A continuation of this trend is potentially disastrous, and the first step to reversing it is convincing experts of the importance of respecting the boundaries of their knowledge. Or, as the Welsh proverb goes: “If every fool wore a crown, we should all be kings.”