Love Science, and Beware the Cult of the ‘Expert’
I love science. And education, and skilled professionals. My wife had a c-section, and she and my kids would probably not be alive without modern medicine. Prior to the 20th century, only 50% of kids made it to adulthood, so without modern technology and expertise I might not be here either. Many of the things I love and depend upon (the internet, municipal utilities, chocolate, democracy) wouldn’t be possible without highly skilled people making them happen.
But in the basic trainings I’d give new campaigners and advocates, I’d have a session called “Beware the Cult of the Expert”. In sum, a rookie mistake on a campaign would be to call up an ‘expert’ about a problem, and take their word as gospel. The best argument against doing this is to call another expert, and another. You’ll get lots of different opinions, often conflicting ones, even on basic questions. In my experience this is true in medicine, law, politics, science and on pretty much any subject matter.
In the first few weeks of the world learning about Covid, I spoke to perhaps the second most prominent expert in the world on it. My first question was “Could it mutate into something worse?”. He mentioned a powerful decision maker had just asked him that question, and his answer was clear: no. The virus was already as viral as it could be, so we were very unlikely to see new, more dangerous variants. Of course, he was entirely wrong on those counts.
And sometimes, the errors of our experts, and our blind following of them, can precipitate brutal consequences.
In his outstanding book Humankind, Rutger Bregman tells the story of mass civilian bombing in World War 2. This kind of bombing was new, based on a book by French psychologist Gustave le Bon, which most leaders of the combatant countries had personally read. Le Bon claimed psychological evidence that when terrorized, people descend into barbarism and tear each other apart. Horrific, sudden, inescapable bombing of entire cities, and follow up bombing of rescue efforts, were designed to induce this terror and societal collapse. In fact, everywhere it was used, from the UK to Germany to Japan, it had the opposite effect, bringing communities together in common enterprise, united behind their leaders. It brutally murdered and maimed millions of innocent people and children, and may have only had the effect of prolonging the war. And despite all evidence of this, national governments stuck with their ‘expert’ psychological understanding and never abandoned the policy.
Another infamous example of the perils of expertise is Trofim Lysenko, the scientist whose views of agricultural productivity were adopted by the Soviet and then Maoist Chinese regimes. Lysenko’s ideas imported political concepts into biology, claiming that seeds of the same ‘class’ would never compete with each other. His views were viciously enforced at risk of job loss and persecution or worse, and farmers were forced to plant such seeds very close together. The result was some of the greatest famines of the 20th century, killing millions in the Soviet Union and China.
Again, I’m deeply grateful for modern medicine, and come from a family of doctors. But I also know how fallible they are. As a profession, medicine only became a net positive for a community in the 20th century. In the 19th century, having a doctor in your village *increased* the death rate. And the examples of the damage persist to this day. Perhaps the greatest single indictment I know of expertise in general is that up until the 1990s, doctors in many countries including the US operated on babies without anaesthetic, confidently assuring parents that the poor little sweethearts could feel no pain because their nerves weren’t developed yet. It was, of course, bullshit.
A bullshit that is obvious to any parent. And this is the point. Expertise can be wonderful, life saving. But it should never cause us to abandon our conscience or our common sense, to release our own judgment. To do so is an act of ignorance, not wisdom - at the very least it betrays a lack of awareness of the diversity of expert opinion on any given topic.
My impetus to write this post came from the observation that, increasingly, all realms of human life are being considered the purview of experts. In the past, medicine and agriculture and perhaps economics were handled by experts, but not families and love and parenting and politics. These were human things, too complex, too morally diverse, too uncertain to be the domain of experts. In many cases, we trusted our intuition to manage the unimaginable complexities of these human challenges. My mother’s advice to me on both love and parenting was to trust myself, and have faith in my own inner guidance.
But, increasingly, for parents and managers and family members like me, I want the data, the latest thinking and research on how to do better. How to think fast and slow, in the terminology of psychologist Daniel Kahneman. How to get past the flaws in my intuition, how to be on the cutting edge of human improvement.
And that’s wonderful. And dangerous.
Because the Gustave le Bons and Trofim Lysenkos of today are among us right now. Giving us confident ‘expert’ advice on our workplaces, our relationships and our emotional lives. And bringing wonderful positive change, and wreaking enormous crippling damage.
Consider the ubiquitous “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” ‘experts’ who are paid billions to train workers everywhere as of the last several years. Much of this field has not even proceeded from psychology or performance sciences or management science or any of our social sciences. Much of it is in direct tension with many findings of those disciplines. It’s often been informed theoretically by ‘critical studies’ departments at mostly American universities, which are departments that are explicitly ideological rather than truth-seeking and impartial in their scholarship. This body of work then interacts with a largely unregulated industry of consultants that sell themselves to corporations with a promise to protect them from legal liability by instructing staff to avoid certain areas of legal risk.
I’m passionately against racism and for inclusion, as I’ve written about elsewhere. That’s why I’m critical of the orthodox approach. The evidence for the value of DEI training is overwhelmingly negative. One exhaustive study published in the Harvard Business Review of over 800 large US organizations over 30 years shows that the DEI approach has resulted in virtually no benefit to team diversity, and actually done harm by activating bias and undermining relationships between individuals from different groups. A cautionary tale for the rest of the world which, since 2020, has been vigorously importing this flawed American model of thinking about identity, power, diversity, bias and harmony to workplaces everywhere, and often prevailing over common sense and good judgment by threatening to smear and punish those who question it.
The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) is an excellent new organization started by Daryl Davis among others (Davis persuaded hundreds of people to leave the KKK). It makes a direct parallel between the ‘intolerant orthodoxy’ of today’s DEI establishment, and the theories of Lysenko in this explainer. NYT columnist and Columbia Prof John Mcwhorter goes further in his new book “Woke Racism” to describe the DEI approach has having moved beyond a tribe to a new religion, impervious to reasoning, that is doing significant harm to Black American communities in particular.
Some analyses of the spread of the more coercive brands of DEI and cancel culture liken it to moral panics we’ve seen many times, the most famous of which might be the witch hunt of Salem. But I’m struck how we fail to record others to memory, and particularly the role that experts play in them. One analogy is made by the thinker Coleman Hughes, to the daycare sexual assault moral panic of the 1980s and 90s. For years, parents pulled their children out of daycare, leaving them literally empty, and innocent caregivers were sent to prison, based on the ‘expert’ opinion that all you have to do is ask a toddler or child if they’ve been sexually touched, and if they say yes, they never lie. Of course, that expert assessment is now considered ludicrous, but not before it caused untold trauma to US families and caregivers, trauma for which there has been virtually no accountability.
I’ve long remarked on how divorced we human beings get from what is actually good for us when we form groups and systems to pursue what is good for us. In my undergraduate degree at Oxford, I wrote my thesis on the causes of the Asian Financial Crisis, a devastating event that threw millions into poverty. I was shocked to find the world’s best economists simply modelling their prejudices to find explanations, and not a single one running an actual empirical survey to ask the 26 year old currency traders in New York why they withdrew their money so fast from Indonesia and other countries. In one heated exchange with my economics professor, he exclaimed “The problem is, you care about the truth, and I care about reconciling the views of my colleagues!!” When I graduated, he gave me a book called the Tribe of the Econ, which evaluates economists as an anthropologist would, a tribe with its own rituals and currencies of success which often trump any public service motivation.
One consequence of these dynamics is what Jonathan Haidt calls ‘structural stupidity’. If you don’t have freedom of speech and thought in a system, for example, and you introduce other heuristics such as tribe or ideology or seniority or priority on certain voices, or whether an idea meets the needs of the system, you can get increasingly bad and damaging ideas.
Haidt has been, I fear, prescient in calling attention to how some of the psychological and educational orthodoxies of our time may be devastating the mental health of our kids. One cause he cites is ‘safetyism’ - the mistaken propensity to try to protect our kids from all harm, which of course can be extremely harmful because humans are ‘anti-fragile’ and we grow strong and healthy through adversity. One element of the structural stupidity present in this error might be understood by another Haidt research project in the US which showed that only around 5% or less of the PhD students and other academic staff in social and personality psychology are politically conservative (about 80% are strongly leftist), and that bias against moderates and conservatives is openly promoted, despite those political orientations being largely genetically determined and corresponding to personality and values sets that hold timeless human wisdom and value, at the very least for the large majority of humanity that shares them.
The flaws in psychology don’t stop there. One study selected 100 of the most cited studies in social and cognitive psychology, and found that 75 were not replicable. That is, their findings could not be confirmed by running the same study over again. One common issue - often these original ‘findings’ were not even statistically significant! A truly basic error. Clearly another logic than scientific rigour is operating in how the discipline of psychology chooses its beliefs. This is but one reason that while our culture is increasingly quick to counsel therapy for any human ill, the evidence of impact on self reported human well being varies wildly by the type of therapy, of which there are legions. And of course, by the skill and quality of the therapist, of which there is even greater diversity.
Wherever I’ve gone in my career, I’ve found similar sectoral dynamics. Whether it’s the paralyzing, stifling fear of risk or controversy or offending peers in the nonprofit sector, or the similar obsession with glacial process and endless consultation in the foundation sector, or the petty turf battles of government, people’s careers and safety and the incentives and demands placed on them by the system drives much of what the system produces. It’s all about the tribe and your place in it. And these professional tribes divorce some of us from the rest of us, and from the values and causes we might profess to serve. It can even disconnect people from themselves, from their deepest callings and conscience and inspirations, the way a cult might be seen to do, but less insidiously. And virtually EVERY expert comes out of a system like this one, a tribe with its own agenda and culture, or several of them. To blindly endorse ‘expertise’ without understanding this fact is, well, to be somewhat uninformed.
I first learned of these dynamics in a university course on the history and methodology of science. Many widely held and even experimentally confirmed scientific beliefs (such as that memory is chemically and physically stored in the brain) have been challenged by further learning. Science is a human endeavour, and humans are infamously fallible. In my work to combat disinformation, I was concerned that big tech would use phrases like “there’s no evidence for” something to justify censorship or refutation. There’s no evidence for any claim until there is. When I got sinus surgery my very conventional surgeon harangued me to use nasal lavage daily to flush out my sinuses, while sneering at alternative medical approaches I mentioned. He was a young doctor, and was completely unaware that nasal lavage was a technique used by Indian yogis (and no doubt sneered at by doctors) until it was popularized on the Oprah Winfrey show by, my apologies, Dr. Oz.
It’s natural for science, and for humans, to make mistakes. To be wrong, and to learn from being wrong. It’s inevitable, and we need to be able to take risks and break some eggs. But the kids who were cognitively damaged by overzealous school boards and public health officials who shut down schools without the basis to do so, may never fully recover. We’ll never get back architectural wonders like Penn Station in New York, torn down to erect hideous modern monstrosities by architectural ‘experts’ who confidently assured us that it was an improvement. And we can only fathom the damage that may be being done to human relationships, teams and families right now as we become increasingly guided by ‘experts’ as to how we conduct the most intimate aspects of our personal and social lives.
Part of this damage may occur through exacerbating the culture wars that are ripping many of our democracies apart. Political polarization breeds its own form of structural stupidity, where all logic is subjected to the logic of tribal warfare, leaving confused citizens to try to work out which side is actually evil and corrupt when in fact the truth is often far more complex. I’m not a fan of ignorant populism that casually rejects expertise and settled science, but ignorant populism that casually rejects criticism of ‘expert’ opinion is also dangerous. And the populism that straw-mans, shames and demonizes such criticism is, I believe, wholly counterproductive. If you want to persuade climate skeptics and the vaccine hesitant, shaming and demonizing those views will only backfire.
So let’s welcome research and data and learning and expertise, while also embracing the research and data and learning and expertise we have about expertise itself. I think that’s the path to a more humble, and open minded, and honestly, scientific, engagement with the massive and growing body of specialist expertise that underpins human life and civilization. And let’s never forget that, at the end of the day, each of us must make decisions and choices for ourselves and for how we walk in this world and treat others. And have some humility and respect for intuition and our inner knowing as well, and the diverse choices we make. Particularly when we engage with matters as complex, uncertain and morally diverse as the human heart, and human relationships.