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Listen to These Experts
This week's episode of the Very Serious podcast features Tom Nichols and Lanhee Chen on experts and expertise
This week’s episode of the Very Serious podcast is about experts, and what we should do about them.
We’ve heard a lot of “trust the science and listen to the experts” over the last two years, but this is, at best, an incomplete theory of how to address a difficult and novel problem like COVID.
Listen to which experts? About what? And what if they disagree? The biggest problem with this exhortation is it does not address the limits of expertise: Experts should be able to tell you what may happen if you take a particular course of action,1 but they cannot tell you what is important to you, or how you should balance multiple valid objectives, like preventing COVID spread and ensuring that children are adequately educated.
Therefore, you should not look to the experts to tell you what to do. Expertise is an important input to decision-making, but it needs to be combined with value judgments that are properly left to laypersons — that is, to you, if the decisions are personal, or to elected officials, if the decisions regard public policies.
And yet, we often turn to the experts not just to advise but to decide, a dysfunction that is everybody’s fault. Experts have often been eager to smuggle in their value judgments under the guise of expertise to form policy decisions. Politicians have been too eager to shift responsibility for fundamentally political decisions off to the experts. And members of the public have alternately worshipped or scorned experts instead of treating them as valued advisers with a limited subject-matter purview.
We need the experts, and the experts need us to listen to them. But the current model is broken. So I invited two guests with expertise on expertise to talk with me on this week’s Very Serious podcast about how we can do better.
Tom Nichols wrote a book in 2017 called The Death of Expertise. Tom himself is an expert on nuclear weapons strategy and national defense, and he writes the newsletter Peacefield at The Atlantic.
Lanhee Chen has been a policy adviser for several Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, and he was a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration. Lanhee is currently a Republican candidate himself — he’s running for California state controller.
Well before COVID, Tom was a champion of the good use of expertise. He is perceived as being in the camp of the experts — and he does sometimes scold the public and elected officials for their failure to heed expertise — but he also acknowledges where the experts have gone wrong, and how their overreach has damaged the reputation of expertise to everyone’s detriment. Lanhee has experience synthesizing expert opinion for the use of public officials in a political party where the experts are often on the outs.
As Tom says, experts are servants of a democracy, not its leaders. I encourage you to listen to my conversation with him and Lanhee, and I hope it will help you make better use of expertise, and keep better track of where the experts’ responsibilities end and yours begin.
If you have thoughts on the episode or questions you’d like to hear addressed on future shows, I encourage you to write in the comments or email our Mayonnaise Clinic hotline.
Very seriously yours,
Though, as you have likely noticed over the last two years, your mileage may vary with this.