By Joe Badalamenti
Throughout the past 3 semesters, I have written extensively about the shortcomings of the both public and private responses to COVID-19. It is now December, and many states have undergone a transition back to normalcy. Some states such as Texas and Florida reverted to a pre-COVID environment for months. Despite these efforts, news about a dreaded new variant may convince officials to return to complete lockdowns. While I have provided effective arguments against these policy prescriptions, there is still one question that I feel should be answered: Why have the “experts” failed us?
The common definition of an expert is “one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject”. The term expert can refer to a broad group of people: doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc. However, for this article, the ones that I will focus on are the so-called “trusted experts.” These are the experts who are promoted by the mainstream media and/or those chosen to advise leaders for certain policies. An example of the former would be the economist Paul Krugman, while an example of the latter would be NIH head Anthony Fauci. If you watch cable news, or any mainstream corporate program for that matter, you’ll find that these individuals are treated not only as experts, but even infallible at times. Such a high status begs the question of whether this status is properly earned.
If we look at the track record of these experts, we can see how effective they are at producing good policy outcomes. We can begin with a consideration of economic policies. One major justification for centrally planned governments, such as the Soviet Union, was the efficiency of an economy run completely by experts. Unfortunately, the world would soon learn that free markets tend to have more efficient and faster growing economies than those that are centrally planned. The Soviet Union’s internal collapse was a painful, for some, reminder of this lesson. Despite this, experts continue to advocate for these same progressive and even socialist policies that lead to economic decline. Even the advocates of the so-called “mixed economy” fumble as they attempt to explain the rampant inflation without considering the expansion of money supply brought by their policies. Foreign policy is also rife with failures, as Afghanistan reminded us of the difficulty involved with regime change projects. Finally, COVID lockdowns and regulations have failed to accomplish tangible results compared to states or countries that pursued opposite policies.
This leads us back to the topic of the essay: “Why do experts fail?”, I can provide 2 possible explanations for why this is the case. The first relies on the probability that experts are working against the interests of the public. For instance, Fauci has flipped on several important issues such as masks, the lengths of the lockdowns, and others. In light of the confirmation of US gain of function research funding in Wuhan, it’s entirely possible that Fauci knows better but gives unreliable information anyway (most likely to say what his audience wants to hear, or due to his own narcissism). If this is true, the explanation is simple: experts fail because their decisions aren’t based on expertise. These decisions typically prioritize short-term outcomes over their long-term counterparts in order to garner trust from the public while implementing destructive policies. This would invalidate all of the assertions made by these experts as they are designed to produce bad outcomes over time. The main issue with this explanation is that you would have to prove that the expert is acting with bad intentions, a very difficult task. Though, if one can prove it then the case is clear.
The other scenario is one in which the experts have no incentive to avoid their expertise. Looking back to the foreign policy mishaps, it’s hard to assume that those experts wouldn’t act carefully; still, they have failed. Why? Perhaps their expertise isn’t as effective as one would assume. Upon researching information for this article, I came across a Substack piece describing the work of the economist Phil Tetlock. According to Tetlock, when making predictions or forecasts in areas of the social sciences, expertise has no correlation with accuracy. This can explain the failures of foreign policy experts, economists, and others who attempt to predict outcomes of proposed policies. One possible reason for this result is the effect of unaccounted incentives, faulty assumptions, or plain uncertainty. Such uncertainty is common even in the hard sciences where knowledge of concepts tends to correlate with positive outcomes. With all this in mind, maybe we have been asking too much of these experts over the years.
An expert may demonstrate his proficiency in a field through rigorous studies, however, this may not always correlate with positive outcomes. If society is to learn any lesson from these failures it is to proceed cautiously with any prediction or policy with little to no record of success. Such wisdom must be taken if we are to avoid these failures in the future.