Tom Nichols is a professor and soi-disant expert on foreign and defense policy. He is apparently upset that people aren’t paying him enough attention.
It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don’t, but that’s an old problem. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites–and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.
Well, people don’t as a rule lose confidence in experts that maintain a good track record of success. New England Patriots fans, for instance, generally retain a high degree of trust in the judgment of Bill Belichick. Only when supposed experts screw up do people start to lose confidence. And the fact is that, over the past 15 years or so, America’s experts and elites have put together an appalling record of failure that has resulted in real suffering for millions of ordinary people. Professor Glenn Reynolds offers a few of the more prominent examples.
It was experts that gave us the financial crisis, it was experts that gave us the Middle East meltdown, it was experts who gave us the obesity epidemic and the opioid crisis. And yet the experts pay no price for their failures, and cling bitterly to their credentials and self-esteem, while claiming that the problem lies in the anti-intellectualism of ordinary citizens.
Hard to improve on the pithy elegance of Reynolds’ statement, but I would like to point out just a few more of the recent failures of the elites, including the fact that many of the most eminent economists in the country said that Obamacare was going to be a resounding success.
A different group of experts at the FAA maintained until 2001 that airline passengers should not fight back against hijackers. Good thing the flight 93 passengers did not follow the advice of the experts.
Doctors spent decades telling Americans, “Stay out of the sun, you’ll get skin cancer.” Then half of Americans ended up deficient in Vitamin D, one of the most potent anti-cancer agents. Doctors also made statins the most-prescribed class of drugs in America, even though statins can cause severe unintended harm, and despite the fact that the lipid theory of heart disease on which the drugs are based has been all but discredited.
Over the last year and a half, every professional political prognosticator told us that Donald Trump would never win the GOP nomination, and then they told us that he could never win the presidency. They also told us that Brexit would never happen.
Given the record of failure, I sympathize with people wanting to “assert autonomy” from the credentialed-but-hapless experts. Trust is not given; it has to be earned. And the way to earn trust is through real success, not through lame-ass credentialism. Nichols’ piece should be re-titled “How the Experts Lost the Trust of the American People.”
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll close with a pic that sums up the state of ‘expertise’ in America today. But first, let’s introduce one of America’s foremost experts on nutrition and obesity.
Kelly Brownell is Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and is a professor of public policy. He also serves on the board of directors of the Duke Global Health Institute.
In 2006 Time magazine listed Brownell among “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” in its special Time 100 issue featuring those “.. whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.”…
Brownell has advised the White House, members of congress, governors, world health and nutrition organizations, and media leaders on issues of nutrition, obesity and public policy. He was cited as a “moral entrepreneur” with special influence on public discourse in a history of the obesity field and was cited by Time magazine as a leading “warrior” in the area of nutrition and public policy.
Brownell is the guy on the left.