The Tyranny of the Experts, Revisted

By April 26, 2020 Commentary

Relatively early on I wrote a couple of posts about the dangers of relying on experts with a narrow point of view in making a multifaceted decision.  That continues to be a problem in formulating rational decisions in regard to the epidemic.  The original posts are combined below, but I want to add a couple of more thoughts.  One is to just remember that these people are human beings, and they are equally fallible.  And they tend to have a very significant weakness; they are convinced that they are experts and they lack the self-awareness to question their own decision-making process or decisions.  Neil Ferguson, the lead modeler who wrote the Imperial College study based on flawed Chinese data and statistics, which predicted a horrific number of deaths, and led to the government shutdowns, had previously badly, badly botched predictions on two other epidemics.  This was readily ascertainable by a simple Google search.  Why he still had a job, much less was being listened to is a complete mystery.

Experts are routinely wrong in any field.  Here is how you get to be an expert.  You go to college and probably graduate school, you read a bunch of research, you study some subjects and you do some research.  In epidemiology, how many of the experts have actually dealt with an epidemic and how successfully did they do so?  Often experts don’t actually do that much work in the field in which they are supposedly expert.  And they tend to fall back on the same old solutions and approaches; they lack any ability to innovate or think differently in a situation.  That is exactly what we see happening with this epidemic–looks like it might be an epidemic, oh, lets lock everybody up so no one gets sick.  Really, that is the best you can do?

So if you are a reasonably intelligent human, you can actually read the same stuff these people do, you can think about in a fresher manner than they do, and if you have a constant attitude of questioning whether what you believe or have been told is right; if you constantly ask if there isn’t an alternative explanation or approach, you will being more rational than most experts.

So with that, here are the earlier posts:

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.

Last week I wrote a post regarding the dangers of allowing experts with narrow perspectives to dictate public policy.  Others, including futurist George Gilder, have written on the same theme.   (Gilder Post)    There are many reasons to be cautious in relying on experts.  One is that they often aren’t so expert, especially when it comes to areas with great uncertainty.  Projecting the course of an epidemic certainly falls into that category.  Another is that they are after all human beings and human beings all have their cognitive biases and blind spots. In the earlier post I used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate what happens when only one perspective is used in decision making.  Another useful reference might be tunnel vision.

Our public health experts in particular, appear to only be able to see one part of a problem and even that very narrowly.  They seem to view their task as solely “I must prevent as many deaths as possible from coronavirus.”  If that is your concern, you have every incentive to recommend the most extreme actions that will achieve that goal.  That is exactly what we are seeing.  And you then have every incentive to claim that in the absence of those extreme actions, very large numbers of lives will be lost, which is also what we see.  In fact, the more deaths that you project will occur if you don’t take extreme actions, the better you look when the number comes in below that projection.  It is kind of a no-lose proposition for the experts, and the politicians who follow their advice.  For the public, right now, it is not so much a no-lose proposition, as a can’t win.  The public is being told either you have a really high chance of dying or you can lose your jobs and live in a ruined economy.

What is somewhat surprising is that these public health experts must be fully aware of all the health harms that flow from economic recessions and depressions, yet they don’t appear to be weighting those harms at all in their recommendations.  And it is also surprising that the views of economists aren’t being given equal weight in making decisions.  Why at every press conference do we see the public health experts, but not a word from the economists to explain all the damage being done in terms of jobs being lost?  The number of deaths from coronavirus is a guess at best, and no one can tell us how many of those deaths are actually saved by the extreme economic shutdown, but we know with certainty the enormous toll of job loss and financial harm.

As Gilder suggests, true political leadership would encompass the ability to synthesize all viewpoints, those of a variety of experts in different fields but also those of the public, who of course are ultimately the most affected by decisions made.  And a leader has to have some over-arching principles to guide their decision-making. For public policy, that principle would appear to be to do the most good for the most people, or to do the least harm.  That almost certainly is not occurring in regard to the coronavirus epidemic.  Instead of reasoned, balanced responses we see panicked enactment of the most extreme measures, made by politicians who then hide behind the recommendations of a limited set of the “experts”.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Harley Handegard says:

    Well written, logical post.

    In the real world, not the insulated, education world where our governor spent many years, accountants, valuation consultants and investment bankers prepare many financial analyses of businesses and various investment scenarios. But everyone knows the limitations of a projection spreadsheet, regardless of how many tabs, how complicated the formulas are, how dramatic the rates of return are in the fourth year. Experienced professionals know the “half-life” of a projection isn’t that long, and continue to search for more current results, and to continually update and refresh the models for the same.

    Rather than “Ready, Aim, Shoot”, it’s more “Ready, Aim, Shoot, Adjust; then Repeat” We need more Adjusting, and we need politicians and bureaucrats who are OK doing the same.

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