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Expertise and “Truth Decay”

Americans are suspicious of expertise. The right believes it is elitist, the province of those pointy-headed liberals who look down their noses at the rest of us. Those on the left remember that the “best and brightest” gave us the ten year slog in Vietnam with 58,000 American deaths and total fatalities of over two million. We laud “good old commonsense”, which many believe is both an antidote for professional knowledge and a solution to any problem.

Climate change? How many times do we have be told that a chilly day in summer is proof that the planet is not warming. The need for social distancing and masks? Forget the advice of all our health professionals, I have a Constitutional right to be stupid and party at crowded bars and infect others. I am waiting for Donald Trump to attend a beachfront bar in Fort Lauderdale without his mask, or, better yet, hold his rally in Texas and go into the crowd and shake hands with his supporters without asking them to sign a waiver of liability if they catch the virus.

It’s silly to think you can argue with stupidity based on a conscious avoidance of knowledge, but maybe we can at least define some of the terms. Expertise is defined as an expert opinion by one with special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject. Thus, to be an expert does not require academic training, only smarts in a particular subject.

If my friend is a wonderful carpenter with no training other than years of experience, I will gladly rely on him to build my home, knowing he will refer me to a plumber and electrician to do something outside of his expertise. That said, experience alone is not sufficient for many professions, which require intense academic study.

A doctor needs eight years of medical school, internship and medical residency to develop her knowledge to the point that she can perform her specialty. Wishing and commonsense won’t make her able to perform surgery, nor will it help an engineer to build a bridge, or an epidemiologist to evaluate a new Coronavirus drug. (Although our President seems able to do so because of his “natural instinct for science.”)

This is not to say we must automatically accept the conclusions of experts, it only means we have to set aside our emotional and political biases and evaluate what is presented to us based on the facts, the arguments and the conclusions. We may not believe politically that we should raise the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour, but if there is a study which advances that proposition we should at least have an open enough mind to see if the evidence supports that conclusion.

The difficulty arises when there are problems which cannot be solved by scientific principles. Unfortunately, political issues don’t lend themselves to scientific certainty, which is the best reason why we should not be subservient to political pundits and politicians. We should hold them to real facts, and then we can then make our own judgements about their expertise, abilities and biases.

One problem in the last three years is that our President and his followers have called anything they disagree with fake news. This has led to our skepticism of all news and the editorializing of reporting and unmitigated lies (both Russian, Chinese and domestic), throughout social media and in other news sources. Trump and other autocrats world-wide have succeeded in eroding people’s faith in all media, making us susceptible to disbelieving everything and believing anything.

The Rand Corporation has called this phenomenon “truth decay”, which they have defined as the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life. They have concluded that most of us get our news from multiple sources, including broadcast and cable TV, online sources, print and radio. Their most surprising finding was that one third of us used news sources which we believed were less reliable, mostly relying on social media and our peers. This follows numerous other studies which show that we listen or watch media which is attuned to our individual political outlook.

An open mind is a rare commodity In politics. Not being willing to listen to others, experts or not, shuts down our interactions, knowledge, and the ability to reach fully considered opinions and possible consensus. It also causes alienation and sharp divisions in the body politic. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “the test of first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. That first rate intelligence is a requirement in a democratic nation, one built on an exchange of ideas to develop both legislation and policy.

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