Meaningful discussions around the concept of the production and utility of scientific knowledge, interdisciplinary knowledge, and the limitations of expertise.
It is, moreover, true that scientific consensus is often fleeting and regularly overturned, and that, in any case, consensus is neither unanimity nor a marker of infallibility. But the problem that we raise would remain a problem even if scientists were unanimous and infallible in their respective fields, and omnipotent about particular circumstances of time and place…
When the phenomena of multiple scientific fields interact, such as when it is necessary to trade off the health costs of a virus against the economic and other costs of a lockdown, policymakers can turn to experts about isolated phenomena. But there are no experts about the interaction of different kinds of phenomena or about the proper weighting of some against others. Policymakers can ask epidemiologists to weigh in on epidemiology, infectious disease specialists to weigh in on infectious disease, and economists to weigh in on economics. But there are no experts about how these subjects interact or how to balance them.
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…
I fear we are moving beyond a natural skepticism regarding expert claims to the death of the ideal of expertise itself: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those with achievement in an area and those with none. By the death of expertise, I do not mean the death of actual expert abilities, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors and lawyers and engineers and other specialists. And most sane people go straight to them if they break a bone or get arrested or need to build a bridge. But that represents a kind of reliance on experts as technicians, the use of established knowledge as an off-the-shelf convenience as desired. “Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet.”