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The Tyranny of Experts

By March 30, 2020Commentary

Concomitant with the concern I expressed about how a democracy out to be approaching decisions in response to the coronavirus epidemic, I am also concerned about what I will refer to as the tyranny of experts.  An interesting parable which gives some illustration of the nature of this danger is the story of the blind men and the elephant.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this story, it is described, of course, on a Wikipedia page.   (Wiki Page)  The basic concept is that a group of blind men each touch different parts of an elephant and therefore describe what they are sensing as different objects and none of them perceive that it is an elephant.  The moral is that individual perspectives rarely give the whole picture and rarely lead to the best recognition of a problem and to the best decisions about how to solve it.  It is sometimes easy to say that if someone is an expert, of course they know what they are talking about and we must do what they recommend, without considering the limitations to either their perspective or even their expertise.

I believe that is where we are in regard to decisions on how to respond to the coronavirus epidemic.  We are giving too much weight to the advice of public health experts.  They have one perspective on the epidemic, and it is an invaluable one, but it is also a limited one.  Their life’s work is focused on how to limit disease in the population.  They can give us good advice, hopefully, on that topic.  They are not experts at, and because of their perspective, are probably very bad at, ascertaining the economic effects of the public health actions they recommend.  So to turn the response in terms of mitigation measures solely over to the advice of the public health experts is a very, very bad mistake, yet that appears to be what we are doing.  The economic consequences deserve at least equal weighting, because when we talk economic consequences we are primarily talking jobs and people’s livelihoods.  I repeatedly bring up not just what happens to people financially when they lose a job, but also the non-financial damage that occurs.

There are other reasons to be sure that input from people other than the public health gurus is sought.  There has been an unfortunate tendency in recent years for public health officials to want to intrude themselves into lots of decisions that people make and mandate what choices are even available to people; sugary sodas and transfats being two notable examples.  Seeing yourself not as a source of information that is an input into decision-making, but a provider of rules for what must be done is not a good role for any expert.  And there are limitations to anyone’s expertise, limitations that the experts themselves would be wise to constantly acknowledge.  In my own experience over decades of reading medical research, such basic things as blood sugar control and blood pressure control recommendations have changed several times, as research findings or just opinions change.  It wasn’t that long ago that medical opinion ostracized those who said some ulcers might have a bacterial cause, and of course, it turned out that they do.  So, like anything, expert advice should be examined carefully and all perspectives considered.  We have already seen this at work in regard to coronavirus in the wildly varying models of infection and death rates.

So decision-makers need to be sure they are weighing the concerns of fields other than just public health in responding to the epidemic.

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