How deferential should society be to its experts? Joe Klein recently drew attention to the “classic American myth” of the political amateur, possessed of ordinary integrity and plain common sense–Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and all that. Regard for such types can be taken much too far, he argued. Or, as he put it:
There is something profoundly diseased about a society that idolizes its ignoramuses and disdains its experts.
He has a point, no doubt. Still, idolizing experts and disdaining the supposedly ignorant masses is at least as dangerous. The intelligent use of experts is not straightforward. Technical expertise tends to be narrow, sometimes extremely narrow. Many policy-oriented experts are only too pleased to exceed their limits, pronouncing widely and authoritatively on matters they understand hardly any better than non-experts. Economists and climate scientists spring instantly to mind.
Experts are as susceptible to ideological bias and conflict of interest as the rest of us. And one should not forget that they can be plain wrong. Experts often disagree about their own terrain, let alone about the issues that lie beyond it: they cannot all be right. The instinct to put experts in charge of policy and just let them get on with it is deeply misguided.
As I was pondering Klein’s observation I read this Atlantic article on medical research–Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. It’s sobering. Contempt for experts might be diseased, but intelligent skepticism is surely very healthy.