The mantra has been “Trust the Experts.”
Not consult the experts, not evaluate the experts.
Not even trust but verify.
Just believe. Obey them.
But what happens if experts are wrong?
As unthinkable as it is in the current climate of opinion, experts do get it wrong sometimes.
David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright (“Glengarry Glen Ross” and “American Buffalo”), who lost friends among the literati when he confessed to a shift to the right, addresses this question in a New York Times op-ed headlined “When the Experts Fail, Everyone Else Pays the Price.”
Ours is not the first age in which experts have been believed implicitly and their ideas acted upon, even if the tentative results appear destructive. Trofim Lysenko was an expert’s expert:
Or consider Joseph Stalin’s science adviser, Trofim Lysenko. He, too, had complete access to the boss. He believed that plants, like good Communists, could be educated—that peas and wheat could be trained to grow in winter. The Soviet ministry of agriculture, acting on Lysenko’s bogus theories, managed to ruin crops all over Eurasia and starve as many as 10 million people. Later his ideas influenced agriculture policy in Mao’s China and killed several million more.
Lysenko was a talented flatterer. He outlived Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, dying peacefully in 1976.
Prof. Frederick Lindemann was a talented flatterer, who early in Sir Winston Churchill’s career exercised influence. Lindemann pooh-poohed the notion of radar or that the Germans were developing innovations in bombing that would lead to the V-2. His influence could have been more destructive.
Most recently we have Covid-19. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that masks are useless outside health-care facilities, that there is little possibility of catching the virus from a “passing interaction in a public place.” Happy news, save that they, one week later, issued a squishy semiretraction, saying, in effect, “It couldn’t hurt.”
What could the shutdown hurt? A pandemic was allowed to destroy the American economy. Tens of millions are driven out of work, cover their faces, and walk down the streets in fear of their neighbors.
A friend owns a restaurant. He is going broke. He had seating outside, but winter approaches and heaters are back-ordered until next spring. He is holding on. One is “permitted” to sit at his tables and eat without a mask. Indeed, how would one eat while wearing one? Does the virus know that one is sitting down?
It is a terrific op-ed and I urge you to read it.
Mamet doesn’t address one issue that I find outrageous: when arbitrary rules are imposed on people, no scientific reason is given. Do scientists give reasons why 8 people at dinner are okay, but 9 aren’t? The issue of our liberties is also insufficiently addressed.
We have embraced a no-debate standard. We also have adopted “favorite” experts. A heretical expert must be banished. Some experts are better than others! But this is not the scientific method, which relies on new discoveries and discordant ideas. It also rejects the citizenry’s rights to be given specific reasons for specific rules. In a democracy, the notion of blind obedience should be alarming.
Those who cry “Science!” the loudest have forgotten that science is always tentative, ready to change with the newest truth to be discovered. They seem to want to turn “science” into religion.
I’ll bet there were voices raised against Lysenko that went unheard.
How about we consider the experts, winnowing information, and factoring in relevant concerns?