Article originally published in London in The Jackal
Let’s face it: expertise has not had a very good century. George W. Bush’s foreign policy experts spent their early months scrutinizing Russia; they ignored al-Qaeda. Later the experts called Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction “a slam dunk,’’ and proclaimed subprime mortgages safe, because nobody ever lost money on real estate.
President Obama had his own problems. He was a virtual advertisement for rational decision-making and the authority of experts. Somehow his eight years closed with the conclusion that rationality and expertise wasn’t enough to get the job done.
Donald Trump’s presidency arrived as a repudiation of his predecessors. He wasn’t going to rely on experts or his intellect; he’d go with his gut. An amateur politician, he installed other amateurs as his advisors. “I alone can do it,’’ he told us. And with his putative billions and sexy wife as proof, the guy was obviously a winner.
Trump’s election has invited a massive repudiation of expertise. Oil companies now tell climatologists that global warming is a hoax. Unskilled workers explain to economists that trade agreements don’t work. White supremacists explain to historians that the Civil War had nothing to do with racism.
“Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue,” says the writer Tom Nichols in his new book, The Death of Expertise. “To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true.”
Aye, but here’s the question: when has it ever been otherwise? Five hundred years ago, no organization on earth possessed more authority than the Roman Catholic Church. Those guys had answers for everything. Then along came Martin Luther, and reformation was the thing. So far downhill has the church’s authority fallen that a few months ago, Pope Francis, responding to a question about homosexuality said “Who am I to judge?’’ Dude—you’re the Pope!
The truth is, we love challenging authority. All our favorite stories are about nobodies who come out of nowhere to confound the experts: Jesus and the Pharisees. Young Arthur and the sword in the stone. Rocky Balboa. Cinderella.
And why not? The know-it-alls have often known very little. Well-respected people practiced racism and antisemitism. Pillars of the community kept hundreds of slaves. Educating women was thought ridiculous and enfranchising them insane. Best medical practices once include bleeding and lobotomies. Until the mid-19th century, doctors thought it was a waste of time to wash their hands. The doctor who campaigned for cleanliness, Ignaz Semmelweiss, was driven out of his profession.
Making authority defend itself is good for all concerned. A study in Nature magazine last year asked 1576 scientists to reproduce the results of another scientists experiments. More than 70 percent failed. Worse, more than half failed to reproduce the results of their own experiments. We should be dubious about trade deals. We should be skeptical about beneficence of technological revolutions.
But even though expertise may not always be right, it still beats ignorance. So far Trump’s presidency-by-instinct has led him to pull America out of the climate accords, which has only diminished America’s international standing; to issue a travel ban on Muslims, which has been rejected by the courts; and to attempt to repeal Obamacare, which only made the program more popular. He couldn’t even manage to repudiate violent extremists. He will return from vacation in early September having passed no legislation, and with a special prosecutor breathing down his neck
“I thought it would be easier,’’ Trump said of the presidency. “Our new president has of course not been in this line of work before and I think had excessive expectations,’’ said his ally, Senator Mitch McConnell. “He’s new to government,” apologized the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
Some people are wondering whether the President is going to develop more respect for expertise. The real question is whether he is going to be around long enough to develop any of his own.