Tag Archives: expertise

Elevating Ignorance

By now, most people have heard about the twitter storm in the aftermath of NPR’s 4th of July tweeting of the Declaration of Independence. A number of Trump supporters responded angrily to the descriptions of King George as a tyrant; unfamiliar with one of this nation’s founding documents, these “patriots” assumed that the tyrant in question was Trump and unleashed their ire accordingly.

Pretty much everything to be said about that episode has been said, and I don’t intend to belabor yet another example of the lack of basic civic knowledge. (I’ll  even resist the temptation to say “See, I told you so.”)

What is worth thinking about, however, is what has been termed “America’s Cult of Ignorance.” An article addressing that issue began with my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

The linked article is an excerpt from a book the author has written on the subject. He gives several examples of the harms done by widespread ignorance, then gets to the point:

These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of lay people lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.

The author grapples with the phenomenon of “stubborn ignorance”in the midst of the information age, and concludes that “hilarious” as examples may be (see the NPR episode, for example) it is ultimately no laughing matter.

Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. It’s mostly harmless when people emphatically say, for example, that they’re avoiding gluten and then have to admit that they have no idea what gluten is. And let’s face it: watching people confidently improvise opinions about ludicrous scenarios like whether “Margaret Thatcher’s absence at Coachella is beneficial in terms of North Korea’s decision to launch a nuclear weapon” never gets old.

The problem, as he readily admits, is not that we do not have experts. We do. The problem, he says, is that we use them as technicians, as conveniences. We don’t engage with them.

It is not a dialogue between experts and the larger community, but the use of established knowledge as an off-the-shelf convenience as needed and only so far as desired. Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet. (More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight.) Help me beat this tax problem, but don’t remind me that I should have a will. (Roughly half of Americans with children haven’t bothered to write one.) Keep my country safe, but don’t confuse me with the costs and calculations of national security. (Most U.S. citizens do not have even a remote idea of how much the United States spends on its armed forces.)…

Any assertion of expertise from an actual expert, meanwhile, produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.

A society that knows nothing, elects a know-nothing.

Bleeding Expertise

Drip, drip, drip…

No, I’m not alluding to the daily emergence of new evidence confirming the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. I’m talking about the accelerating rate at which people who actually know what they are doing are abandoning this bizarre administration.

When the CEO of your company, or the Executive of your political subdivision, or the President of the United States is intellectually and emotionally unfit to lead, the people who work for that company or city or branch of the federal government face an uncomfortable choice: do they hang in there and try to make things work despite the dysfunction at the top? Or do they weigh their ability to do their jobs against the likelihood that their continued employment is simply enabling dangerous incompetence?

One long-time American diplomat who concluded that he had to resign wrote a column in which he explained his decision. David Rank had been a member of the U.S. Foreign Service since 1990. Most recently, he ran the U.S. Embassy in China.

This month, I resigned from the State Department’s Foreign Service, stepping down as the senior U.S. diplomat in China and ending a 27-year career. I served five presidents — three Republicans and two Democrats — and, like my colleagues throughout the Foreign Service, took pride in the tradition of loyal, nonpartisan service. I also took seriously my oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and the obligations that came with representing the American people.

When the administration decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change, however, I concluded that, as a parent, patriot and Christian, I could not in good conscience be involved in any way, no matter how small, with the implementation of that decision.

The job he held all those years was hardly what you’d call “cushy:” Rank had his close calls with bombs, guns and grenades;  his father died when he was on assignment in Taiwan. His mother died while he was in Afghanistan. He missed both the birth of his first child and his only son’s senior year of high school.

Government workers make those sacrifices because they believe in the importance of the service they are rendering.

Rank says he leaves with gratitude for his experiences, for his colleagues and for the opportunity to serve his country. But he also leaves with deep-seated concerns.

I worry about the impact my departure will have on colleagues who remain. Many of these colleagues, some with decades of contributions ahead of them, share my dismay not just at the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement but also at the unraveling of 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy that has made the world and the United States safer and more prosperous. Rather than encourage them to follow my example, I hope my departure will send a message on their behalf so that they can continue to work within the system to make things a little bit better, a little bit at a time. That work will always be honorable work and, I suspect, will be more important than ever in the coming years.

I worry about the frequently politically motivated portrayal of those who work for the American people as members of some mythical elite, separate and suspicious. Such false characterizations drive talented Americans away from public service or discourage them from entering it in the first place. My experience has been that those who work for America look like America. For my part, I certainly never felt particularly “bicoastal.” I was raised in a decidedly working-class town south of Chicago. My wife grew up showing hogs and cutting corn out of beans. Like many of my colleagues, I am a product of a public education, from grade school to grad school.

I worry about the denigration of expertise at a time when a complex world demands it more than ever.

For my part, I worry about the loss of people like David Rank. And I especially worry, as he does, about the future of a country that sneers at knowledge and education as elitism, competence as snobbery, and uncongenial facts as “fake news.”

What Do THEY Know??

The Trump Administration’s war on expertise continues to expand.

Jeff Sessions (memorably identified by a Facebook friend as one of those Confederate monuments that should be removed) ignores 40+ years of criminal justice research and intensifies the drug war.  Betsy DeVos gives a feminine finger to the mountains of data rebutting her insistence that vouchers improve educational outcomes. Scott Pruitt spits on the 98% of climate scientists who agree that climate change is (a) real; (b) accelerating and (c) caused by human activity, especially fossil fuel use.

There is a reason that terms like “Know Nothings,” “Keystone Kops,” and “Gang that Can’t Shoot Straight” are being retrieved from past usage and applied to this sorry band of incompetents and theocrats.

When it comes to economic policy, Trump’s alternate reality isn’t limited to his belief that he invented the term “priming the pump.” As a column from the Washington Post recently reported,

President Trump’s administration says his tax cut will pay for itself. It turns out it’s really hard to find an economist who agrees.

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business regularly polls economists on controversial questions. In a survey the school published last week on Trump’s tax plans, only two out of the 37 economists that responded said that the cuts would stimulate the economy enough to cancel out the effect on total tax revenue.

Those two economists now both say they made a mistake, and that they misunderstood the question.

So there is not a single economist in the Chicago poll who agrees with the President that his proposed tax cuts would pay for themselves.

Not that the opinion of 39 out of 39 experts has a chance in hell of influencing a Commander-in-Chief whose residence in a very bizarre alternate universe becomes more apparent every day.

In Trump World–a world shared to varying degrees by the members of his spectacularly ignorant and incompetent cabinet–Trump knows more than those elitists who actually studied their subject matter. Sissies read books and conduct empirical research; superior beings (i.e. rich guys) surround themselves with lackeys and listen to their guts.

What did Stephen Colbert call it? Oh yes–Truthiness.

To use a term dear to the heart of our linguistically-challenged President, SAD.

Diminished Expectations, Diminished Performance

I haven’t been particularly kind to several of our elected officials lately. Believe it or not, I take no satisfaction in criticizing the failures and foibles of those who’ve been elected to manage the affairs of the republic. Ultimately, after all, the fault lies with the voters who elected them.

We the People don’t have very high standards. We seem to regard these empty suits as “good enough for government work.” In short, the low esteem with which we view our governing institutions has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s be brutally frank. Why would people who are moderately competent, let alone “the best and brightest,” want to work with the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert or literally dozens like them? How can we expect capable management of agencies charged with oversight of complex and interrelated public functions when the politicians to whom those managers must report have absolutely no idea how government and the economy actually work?

We recently heard elected officials insist that an American default on the debt would be “no big deal.” We’ve heard characterizations of the Affordable Care Act and HIPPA that have betrayed total ignorance of the provisions of both laws. We’ve heard assertions of constitutionality and unconstitutionality untethered from even the most tortured reading of our constituent documents.

There’s nothing wrong with policy debates. Indeed, such disputes can be very productive—but only if the debate is grounded in reality, only if it addresses genuine issues and employs credible information.

When aggressive ignorance is a political virtue and professionalism, knowledge and expertise are vices, we shouldn’t be surprised by a deficit in competent public management.

In the jargon of economics, we get the behaviors we incentivize.

It’s Complicated

It’s election season, and as I’ve watched the various ads, debates and speeches—and grown impatient with the slogans and posturing—it’s occurred to me that the current complexity of our society and world may be outstripping our ability to govern ourselves.

Invoking Ronald Reagan or FDR appeals to partisans, and pledging fealty to American values or ones belief in American Exceptionalism (rarely defined) may provide a window into the philosophical orientation of the speaker, but these invocations give us no clue to how the candidate proposes to solve the growing numbers of problems that aren’t amenable to ideological solutions.

I don’t blame the candidates for this. After all, how many of us, however well educated and informed, really have the background to understand the complicated issues we face?

Take economic growth and job creation, and arguments over whether the proper solution is more stimulus or more austerity. I find certain economists’ arguments more compelling, but not because I have any expertise in economics. Like most of us, I read the competing arguments, compare the assertions to what I (think I) know, and decide which proposals seem most reasonable. Add in the European debt crisis, and I’m pretty much going with my gut.

Similarly, ongoing debates about government regulation are typically posed as “more” or “less,” when the real question is “which ones.” How many of us really know enough to opine about the safety of fracking, or the maximum amount of arsenic that’s safe in our drinking water?

The recent hysteria over health care reform was another case-in-point. That the American health care industry (it hasn’t been remotely coherent enough to be called a “system”) is a wasteful, costly monstrosity is admitted by virtually everyone. The question isn’t whether to keep it or change it; failure to change it will bankrupt the country. The question is how, and I defy any of the folks who got up and screamed at Town Hall meetings to offer a comprehensive, workable alternative to the Affordable Care Act—or even to demonstrate a grasp of how things currently work. This is not a defense of the Act (I personally favored “Medicare for All”), because I do not know enough to attack or defend it. My point is that neither did most of the people doing the attacking and defending.

Recognizing the limits of what “we the people” understand points to an uncomfortable challenge. When should democratic processes decide policies, and when should we trust impartial technocrats?

I am generally comfortable leaving such things as the assignments of air lanes, food safety standards, the disposal of chemicals and hundreds of similar decisions in the hands of people who actually have expertise in such matters. I want real scientists deciding whether global climate change is real, not Rick Perry. On the other hand, as we saw during the last administration, the people we elect can always appoint dubious “experts” who will favor solutions desired by their political allies.

Back before our politics became so toxic, we used to say that there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. There’s also no Republican or Democratic way to address food safety, environmental degradation, air traffic control, stock fraud and a million other tasks that government must provide.

None of this is to suggest that a candidate’s philosophy of government is irrelevant. The way in which a President or Mayor approaches the job will inevitably be guided by his or her belief in the proper role of government, and that’s as it should be.

We just shouldn’t elect people who mistake slogans for solutions.