A quarter of a century ago, a man named McArthur Wheeler was arrested after robbing two banks with his face covered in lemon juice. He had mistakenly imputed an invisibility to a chemical in lemon juice that would let him evade the surveillance cameras. That incident was one of the spurs to the Dunning-Kruger hypothesis, which measures how people of low ability routinely overestimate their ability. They are said to see the world from “Mount Stupid”.
America — and elsewhere — has been undergoing a mass experiment in Dunning-Kruger psychology for the past four years. Donald Trump not only celebrated lack of education (“I love the poorly educated,” he once said), he rewarded highly unqualified people with senior posts in his administration. Some even saw Trump’s 2016 victory as the Death of Expertise, a widely read book by Tom Nichols.
In a culture where both right and left have been undermining the notion of objective truth, Trumpism was an almost natural outcome. The cultural left’s 1960s relativism had come back to bite it. “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,” wrote Nichols. “All things are knowable and every opinion on every subject is as good as any other.” Or, as The Dude says in The Big Lebowski, “That’s just like your opinion, man.”
All of which means experts have been having a hard time of it recently. In spite of not having a clue about the public education system, Betsy DeVos has been running (or do I mean ruining?) the Department of Education for the past four years. As with many people of great inherited wealth, Ms DeVos mistook her philanthropic largesse for knowledge. I won’t go through the list. Let DeVos personify the Trump administration’s Dunning-Krugeritis.
Comically inflated self-assessments also characterise Boris Johnson’s government in the UK (“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts,” said the Conservative party’s Michael Gove in 2016, as he rerouted the aircraft towards the hurricane). Experts were also hit by the 2008 financial crisis, which tarnished economics, and the 2003 Iraq war, which discredited foreign policy expertise. In both cases, however, these were not strictly experts but ideologues hiding behind high jargon (devotees of the efficient market hypothesis in the first case, and neoconservatism in the second).
Nothing has happened in the past four years to discredit the fact that doctors know more than quacks, trained pilots know more than hijackers, and that engineers build better suspension bridges than hobbyists. A person’s self-estimated ability to perform a task has no bearing on their qualification to carry it out.
In the past few months, the outlook for experts has started to look up. They have had two windfalls. The first is the pandemic. This has focused the public mind on the value of specialist knowledge, whether it be in epidemiology or antiretroviral medicine. The discrediting of quack medicine — whether in the form of hydroxychloroquine, ingesting detergents, or spurning masks — has offered a teachable moment to the public at large (or a majority of it). Society is about to call the anti-vaxxers’ bluff. In my view, we will find fewer atheists in that foxhole than we feared. The second windfall is the defeat of Trump. In the past few weeks I’ve continually had to pinch myself on hearing of Biden’s appointments. A high number of them are qualified to do their jobs. “That’s odd,” I tell myself. “She’s got experience in that field.”
The most significant shift is between the presidents themselves. Politics in America is one of the very few fields where you get penalised for experience. Biden is a very rare exception. He could not run against a town in which he’d spent two-thirds of his life. Yet he won anyway. I would not call Biden an “expert”. There is a big difference between expertise in technical fields and what is required for success in occupations based on softer skills. The latter’s most important quality is experience. If Biden fails, a lot more will go down with him. So let’s celebrate this new lease of life for the expert — and wish Biden luck in drawing upon their advice. Rana, you’ve written about Janet Yellen and Gary Gensler, both of whom are exceptionally well suited to their roles, as you rightly argue. Could you list others? And do you think there’s a danger we’re overloading Biden’s administration with expectations?
Ed, as you say, it’s tough to think of a big Biden appointee so far that isn’t qualified for their job. But the reason that experts fell on hard times in recent years isn’t just because we are living in a post-truth era (thanks to social media) or that we had a narcissistic wannabe autocrat as our last president, but because experts themselves were reluctant to admit the things that they didn’t know. This isn’t really all that surprising; research shows that elites are less likely to part with their cognitive biases than average people are. This has been particularly true in economics, which is still struggling to grapple with the fact that its old unifying idea, the efficient markets theory, hasn’t worked very well in the real world.
The thing that’s so great about the key Biden economic appointments like Yellen and Gensler isn’t that they know plenty, which of course they do. It’s that both of them are the sort of people who are confident and curious enough to say when they don’t. I have personally asked both of them any number of questions to which they’ve replied, “I don’t know.” Experts with both humility and humanity, rather than just data points, is what Biden seems to be going for, and that is indeed very good news.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In ‘Welcome, back America’ we asked you what topics you would like to see covered this year in Swamp Notes. Here’s some of what you had to say:
“Two important topics for 2021 are cyber security and the discussion about the power, role and regulation of social media. Facebook and Twitter announced actions against Trump’s lies after the election, not before — which belies the view that they are ‘simply’ platforms and not content providers. Evil doers will find their medium no matter what; criminal behaviour, whatever platform, needs to be dealt with by law enforcement.” — Natalie Cohen, New York, New York
“Having read and been stimulated by a Hillbilly Elegy; The Retreat of Western Liberalism; Don’t be Evil; and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, I look for solutions rather than more diagnosis. How can the left-behind be brought back into feeling part of the community? How can the amount of wealth affecting US politics be brought down to a reasonable level? How can nations agree on taxing fairly big corporates? How can Big Tech be controlled so that it stops smothering at birth potential rivals? As truth is needed, how can quality journalism for the masses be financed?” — Hugh Beevor, London, UK
“One theme that comes to mind is the issue of trust between America and its (traditional) allies. You mention re-establishing trust in domestic politics; the same must be true between the US and Europe (among others). For example: The Paris climate accord from which the Trump administration withdrew. Joe Biden signed an executive order to re-join it. Great. But what are allies to do if America is so schizophrenic that every four years for the foreseeable future, each new administration spends its energy ‘cancelling’ what the preceding one has achieved, resulting in breaching its word and commitments?” — Jean-Luc Sinniger, New York, New York
“Central Banks are not truly independent (they cannot be in a democracy); monetary policy and fiscal policy are joined by the golden risk policy thread. Politics is risk management writ large, and low interest rates (a Soviet approach to pricing?) demonstrates, in my view, that economics is poor at seeing the deferral of risks and externalities. Externalities crystallise.” — Mike Clark, United Kingdom