Listen to the Experts?05-01-2020
Over and again we hear the refrain: “Listen to the experts.” Amidst a crisis that has witnessed a disastrous response from President Trump and the federal government and from many states and cities—Mayor Bill DeBlasio has been particularly inept causing untold misery for New Yorkers like myself—there is a desire to have the experts guide us. But as Archon Fong argues, the temptation to hand governance over to experts sacrifices much of what is most valuable in democracy. First, Fong writes, experts are not always the best decision makers.
At the same time, scientists and experts rarely speak with one voice, and this pandemic is no exception. When some experts advocate moderate responses and others say shut it down, the choice for citizens (and leaders) is not between science and superstition, but which expert to heed. Experts make mistakes just like the rest of us; they are fallible. In a recent interview about the role of scientists in this epidemic, my colleague Sheila Jasanoff said that “Simple faith in experts is every bit as unwarranted as faith in angels. . . . None of us can claim to be prescient.” Democratic public deliberation and citizen engagement can help correct the errors of experts and get closer to the whole truth of this pandemic.
Are the experts more often right than wrong? In his book Expert Political Judgment, Philip Tetlock seeks to test that proposition. In 2011 he organized a four-year prediction tournament. Most of the teams were from universities and government agencies and had access to classified and highly-vetted expert analysis. But the team run by Tetlock and his partner Barbara Mellers recruited about 3,000 volunteers, "bright people with wide-ranging interests and reading habits but no particular relevant background." The questions required judgments and predictions around stock markets, foreign affairs, and social trends. The team of the best volunteers—Tetlock and Mellers gathered their most successful volunteers into a team of super forecasters—obliterated the experts. The actual margins of the victory over the university-run teams with classified information is classified (the test was run by the government funded Intelligence Advanced Research Activity (IARPA), but the Washington Post reports that the volunteers bested the intelligence community analysts by over 30 percent.
Writing about Tetlock and Mellers' study in his own book Range, David Epstein argues that what made the volunteer forecasters successful was that they acted as "partners in sharing information and discussing predictions.” The super forecasters disagreed regularly and challenged each other and their hypotheses. Individuals on the team often revised their own predictions and they sought out contrary opinions. Tetlock described the super forecasters as having Dragonfly eyes, eyes with tens of thousands of lenses each offering a slightly different perspective. Above all, the team members demonstrated "active open-mindedness." As Epstein writes, "their aim is not to convince their teammates of their own expertise, but to encourage their teammates to help them falsify their own notions.”
The active open-mindedness found in the best volunteer forecasters is actually something that is often missing in most experts. Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, argues that "scientific literate adults are actually more likely to become dogmatic about politically polarizing topics in science." This may be because the more educated one is, the better you are at searching out evidence to confirm your hypotheses. Ideally, educated people should be schooled at critical thinking, which includes being skeptical of all conclusions and seeking out opposing and contrary views. But many experts, especially those confident in their expertise, refuse to consider flaws in their logic—even after they have been shown to be wrong. Over and again, experts insisted that if "one little thing had gone differently, they would have nailed it.”
We are all painfully aware today how suspect models are, how they are only as good as the assumptions and data they employ. And yet even as we have come to see the limits of models and the experts who deploy them, we remain desperate for expert guidance and expert rule. And part of that comes with a desire for a centralized federal response. But Fong argues that the instinct to appeal to experts and central governmental control is mistaken:
In a pandemic it is natural to wish for decisive leadership from big government authorities guided by the best science and medical expertise. It is tempting to set aside democratic niceties—questioning authority, raising alternative perspectives, vigorous debate, disagreement, and experimentation—in favor of trusting leaders and experts. Echoing this widespread notion, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote recently in the Atlantic that “what matters” to success in dealing with COVID-19 is “whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state.”
Despite many deep flaws in the U.S. response to coronavirus, active democratic citizenship has driven some of our most important positive achievements so far.
But the idea that we must sacrifice our democratic impulses in favor of strong central authority is dangerously misguided. Maintaining a robust participatory democracy is the best way for Americans to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and to rebuild our society in its wake. In a vibrant democracy, citizens oriented toward the common good do their part to make society work well. In this pandemic, that means that each of us needs to do our part to stop the disease and to help figure out the best ways for our communities to move forward