The Resurgence of Respect for Expertise

and why it won’t last

By Curtis Gillespie

So here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic, though for all we know it might still be the opening credits. The whole crisis feels simultaneously as if it is in its early stages (in that we still understand so little) and is already old news. Raging virus, millions infected, hundreds of thousands dead, the global economy on life support; it’s come upon us in much the same way a character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises describes going bankrupt. It happened in two ways, he says: “Gradually and then suddenly.”

The pandemic’s speed, contagiousness and comprehensiveness have made it all seem eerily inevitable. It must seem obvious to non-partisan humans of normal intelligence (the seven of them left) that we made this bed and now we’re having a nightmare in it. This has happened because we’re smarter and dumber than we’ve ever been. Never has mankind been in possession of so much knowledge that it was too stupid to use. But the questions now are: How do we get out of this mess, and who do we trust to lead the way? Both questions have simple answers in theory: We need to gather good evidence and listen to the experts so we can respond wisely to each challenge and move on to whatever the new normal is. Sounds like a plan, right?

Don’t hold your breath.

In 2017 in The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols, a professor at the Harvard Extension School, explored how and why people who actually know things are so consistently undermined in the public sphere. Too many citizens, writes Nichols, “don’t just believe dumb things; they actively resist further learning rather than let go of those beliefs.” The trend, he said, has been about more than a natural skepticism towards experts, but rather the potential death of the idea of expertise itself, “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”

The genesis of the problem, he says, lies not just in the ever-growing ignorance of the average citizen, but in their proud unwillingness, as an assertion of autonomy, to learn. Yes, expertise is under attack because of the internet, social media and the voracious news cycle, but, he writes, “there is a self-righteousness and fury to this new rejection of expertise that suggest, at least to me, that this isn’t just mistrust or questioning or the pursuit of alternatives; it is narcissism, coupled to a disdain for expertise as some sort of exercise in self-actualization.” In other words, we’ve become too wrapped up in our own self-importance to believe that anyone else can “tell” us what to do or think. “The experts are terrible,” rages Donald Trump, and millions nod their heads in solipsistic indignation.

“Unable to comprehend all of the complexity around them,” writes Nichols, “[people] choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame experts, politicians and bureaucrats for seizing control of their lives… The relationship between experts and citizens, like almost all relationships in a democracy, is built on trust. When that trust collapses, experts and laypeople become warring factions…the collapse of the relationship between experts and citizens is a dysfunction of democracy itself.”

The Pandemic may have changed this. “Competence is captivating,” wrote Ruth La Ferla in The New York Times on May 14, in reference to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his chief strategist Melissa DeRosa. Cuomo’s daily briefings throughout the worst of the pandemic have been widely hailed as masterclasses in crisis management, appointment TV crafted from an absorbing combination of blunt honesty and adherence to scientific evidence. Cuomo himself has no epidemiological training; his currency has been to consistently state he’ll be led by data and the experts generating it.

Alberta has had its own appointment TV. At 3:30 MT every weekday during the pandemic through the spring and early summer of 2020, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, stepped to the microphone to give Albertans an update. A soft-spoken woman not in possession of any particularly dazzling rhetorical skills, Dr. Hinshaw followed roughly the same pattern with each update. She would thank people for doing their part, offer the latest stats on positives, rolling results, those recovered, the breakdown of zone and community/travel-related positives, and, when required, a death report. In such moments, Dr. Hinshaw would speak with feeling rather than clinical detachment. She would note the devastation that even one death causes a family and a community, and that even one death represented a tragedy in the world of those involved and that we should always remember what it must be like to lose a loved one.

If you watched Dr. Hinshaw’s updates with the sound off, you might have thought you were watching the latest report from the treasurer of your local community league updating the pickle ball court renovation. But with the sound on, her manifest competence was indeed captivating in its own way. Dr. Hinshaw has earned the right to be in that spot through her extensive education and experience, which is generally what differentiates expertise from opinion.

An expert is someone who has made a certain field their life’s work. They have spent years if not decades mastering a body of knowledge, readying themself for a professional life in that field. They have subjected themself at every stage of this development to critique—by mentors, advisers, teachers, adjudicators. Those who withstand this scrutiny dive into ongoing research. The threads they follow are based on the meticulous gathering of evidence. The conclusions the evidence leads them to result in dissemination through publications that are subject to rigorous peer review. For certain disciplines—medicine, biology, physics, mathematics, chemistry—achieving a level of mastery is a lifelong test that never ends, and for which there is no final answer. The existence of one expert on one subject is the result of thousands and thousands of hours of study and work and thought and consideration, not to mention humility, since knowledge is a rough path you bushwhack, not a polished gem you unearth. The scientific method itself is predicated on the existence of doubt and the understanding that all research is iterative, collaborative and cumulative.

Too many citizens “don’t just believe dumb things; they resist further learning rather than let go of those beliefs.”

If you haven’t gathered by now, an expert is not someone who pulls their ideas out of a hat. You don’t play in the NHL just because you got a pair of skates for Christmas. In the movies, scientists sometimes make eureka discoveries, but, again with the sports, as the great Arnold Palmer once said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” This is probably as sharp an insight into the differentiation between an expert and expertise as we will find. Experts know things at a deep and meaningful level. How knowledge is applied in a certain field is expertise. Expertise, at least from where I’m sitting, is knowledge, skill, wisdom, insight, experience and training all rolled into an expression of some kind of action.

I have gone through this very process in becoming a professional squash official. In the last couple of years, I have reffed at tournaments such as the World Championships and the US Open, overseeing matches featuring the world’s best male and female players. I didn’t get put in that chair just because I thought it would be a lark. It required literally thousands of hours of training and hundreds of assessments by the world’s top officials. Each evaluation involved my intricately deconstructing the crucial decisions and moments of the match, not to mention analyzing the emotional and psychological grid created by the two players, the official and the crowd. It may not have required a graduate degree, but it was a hell of a lot harder than getting my MA in history.

All of which is to say that, in the middle of a pandemic, there is a good reason why the public gravitates toward experts: They’ve spent a long time acquiring a deep well of knowledge. And if they can apply that knowledge appropriately to what we are going through, they will have our trust. Much like Dr. Hinshaw. She specialized in geriatric medicine prior to being named chief medical officer, which means she has a base of knowledge and training appropriate to her position, but it’s her deployment of that skillset that has earned our confidence and admiration.

The public draws strength from her displays of quiet insight, a command of the data and a genuine humility. In these tense times, she quickly became something of a celebrity. People began to wonder where they could buy her periodic-table dress. T-shirts with an arty rendition of Dr. Hinshaw’s profile and the words “What would Dr. Hinshaw do?” were hot items online. She wasn’t the only medical professional to go viral, as it were. Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s provincial health officer, has been the medical face of that province’s response to the pandemic. She has experienced Hinshaw-level adulation, with murals and ballads created in her honour. And then there’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. Brad Pitt recently played him in a Saturday Night Live skit.

This sudden thrusting of experts into the celebrity spotlight is happening because this is real. This is not about political point-scoring, it’s about lives. The public has turned to experts, thankful for their knowledge, guidance and sanity in a world of killer viruses and presidents promoting bleach margaritas. Experts are being celebrated, their work a safe harbour in a stormy world. Experts are all the rage and a cultural phenomenon.

At least for now, anyway.  

Millions of words have been written about the relationship between experts and non-experts, starting with a teacher/student pairing named Plato and Aristotle. But the book that probably brought the debate into a wider discussion was The Revolt of the Masses by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, first published in 1930. In this book, Ortega y Gasset made the case that modern man, the masses, despised the elite for various reasons but primarily because of the growing power of individual agency amongst the citizenry. Richard Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, a book that attributed a decline in intellectualism in the US to the influence of evangelical religion and the drift towards practical skill acquisition over the acquisition of knowledge. Canada had its own entries to the debate, with books such as Deference to Authority, by Edgar Z. Friedenberg, published in 1980, in which the author asserted that Canadian intellectual, bureaucratic and economic elites maintained their grip on power by convincing the average citizen that deference to the ruling class was necessary in order to preserve the peace, order and good government Canadians purportedly cherish (as opposed to Americans in their unruly pursuit of life, liberty and happiness).

The status of the expert in society, in other words, is not a particularly new debate. The expert has risen and fallen in public esteem in waves across time, depending on the socio-political conditions of that period and place. Not many political systems seemed to be working particularly well early in 2020, which therefore made it a perfect time for a global pandemic. The embrace of the expert we’re seeing in this pandemic is due partly to people hungry for solid information, but it is also a reflection of the public’s realization that politics is broken nearly everywhere. We are turning to scientific experts for leadership. The politicians scoring well in the polls are those hewing most closely to scientific guidance. Those resorting to populist tropes (trusting their gut, following hunches, blaming the other, extolling the wisdom of ordinary folk over out-of-touch elites, pushing magical thinking) are unpopular and vilified. 

We are starting to put our faith once more in experts and the institutions that hire them. The Dublin-based research institute Edelman Trust recently released a Special Report on Trust and the Coronavirus. Scientists, doctors and health officials were the three most trusted sources on the topic of the pandemic, according to the poll. The data also revealed that an informed public is, in Canada, 11 per cent more trusting than the mass population. Journalists came in last amongst the professions in the trust ranking (no poll is perfect), though traditional media has experienced a major uptick in trust with social media information sources at the bottom. Eighty-five per cent of Canadians also said they trust doctors and scientists to speak the truth about the pandemic, which was a higher rating than for politicians or business leaders.

The picture varies from country to country. The US is so tribal and ill-informed (one in five Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth) that even basic facts are contested and filtered through a partisan lens. Dr. Fauci has been painted as a deep-state agent working on the ouster of President Trump, and this piece of idiocy has gained such alt-right traction that Fauci now requires a team of nine bodyguards in his daily movements.

Not that we should feel particularly smug north of the border. Stephen Harper won three elections and from 2006 to 2015 determinedly scrubbed science and expertise from the forefront of Canadian institutions and, he hoped, the public consciousness. Part of the neoliberal playbook is to undermine science, gut research and denigrate expertise in the name of eliminating bureaucratic bloat (whether it exists or not) and erasing speed limits on the free market highway.

It’s probably worth a little thought experiment: What if the pandemic had hit during the Harper majority years? In the leadup to his infamous C-38 omnibus bill of 2012, Harper had been steadily gutting the science community, muzzling them, slashing funding, closing research stations. His government’s actions led to the Death of Evidence march in the summer of 2012, in which hundreds of research scientists took to the streets in protest. It led to the creation of NGOs such as Evidence for Democracy, which advocates for the inclusion of scientific expertise in the making of policy. We are in a better place now, but if the pandemic had hit in January of 2012, Canadians would have had far fewer scientists to turn to, none of them would have been allowed to speak publicly and research would have been tightly aligned to Conservative priorities rather than non-partisan public health.

In Alberta today the medical and scientific communities do not feel they have a robust ally in the premier, to put it mildly. Kenney chose to play the Trump card, as it were, when he criticized Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, accusing her of “repeating talking points” from China. Tam has been widely praised for her efforts during the pandemic and Kenney did not come out on the right side of that episode. Even more indicative, Kenney’s government has already earmarked more funding (meaning more of our money) to produce counternarratives to oil sands opponents than it has to actually monitoring pollutants from the oil sands. That is hardly the definition of evidence-informed policy.

Science and evidence in all their forms will always be under one type of assault or another from short-sighted politicians, the religious right, libertarians and the forces of profit. And good policy must take many factors into account, not just scientific evidence but economic, sociological, political, religious and philosophical considerations. But that complexity is all the more reason to pay attention to people who know what they’re talking about.

We are in an age of baseless certainty. Which is why, counterintuitively, I now place greater trust in people who will stand up in public and say, “Here’s what I know and here’s what I don’t know.” The most reassuring moments of Dr. Hinshaw’s briefings, for me, have come when a journalist would ask a question she didn’t have an answer for. Without getting flustered or defensive, she would state calmly that she would seek the information and get back with a reply. Allowing for what she didn’t know added strength to what she knew.

 Tim Caulfield, a health law professor at the University of Alberta, has written extensively on the misuse of science in popular society. I asked him where this crisis might lead and he responded by email that he hopes “a legacy of this crisis is a greater appreciation of science and the significant adverse impact of misinformation. Expertise is particularly valuable when the evidence is in flux. We need trusted voices to aggregate the emerging evidence in a manner that can be digested and used. We need experts to help us make sense of the uncertainty.”

It’s precisely this uncertainly that fuels conspiracy theories and the mistrust of expertise, adds Caulfield, “especially if they align with pre-existing beliefs or ideological leanings. People want a complete story. Believing 5G technology caused this issue may feel like a more coherent answer than the science still isn’t clear.”

Ignorance is also easier. “If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems,” Michael Lewis wrote in The Fifth Risk, “it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier.”

Much could change as a result of this pandemic—our social habits, public habits, work habits—but the most productive, if we could achieve it, would be a change in our intellectual habits. I don’t mean we should all attempt to become more intellectual, though that wouldn’t hurt. I mean we should all be more informed, more engaged, more skeptical (not cynical). Maybe then we would more frequently see through dishonest actors taking political or economic advantage. If we can’t alter our ways, even slightly, once this pandemic passes we’ll continue to have suspect governance and poorly thought-out policy.

Because we live in a democracy, we have the option to do as we choose with our society. There’s certainly no law that says we have to follow the evidence or listen to the experts. We can trust our gut. Go with a hunch. Why not, right? What’s the worst that could happen? I mean, really, who would you rather have overseeing the pandemic response, and who do you trust with the lives of your children, Deena Hinshaw or Jared Kushner?

It shouldn’t take much expertise to answer that question.

Edmonton’s Curtis Gillespie has written four books and many magazine articles. He also publishes Eighteen Bridges.

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