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Expertise and Ego

A couple of days ago, Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times addressed the ambiguity inherent in making predictions about might happen in the future (his particular topic was inflation) and advocated for a certain humility among self-proclaimed experts (he quoted Oliver Cromwell, of all people: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”).  That was not actually the major thrust of his column — it was more of a premise.  His real point was that, in the face of such ambiguity, decision-makers should find and favor ways to minimize the worst possible outcomes, rather than to optimize the best possible outcomes (because achieving such optimization always depends on a high degree of certainty about how things are going to play out).  But the point was, if not primary, at least clear: “Please, experts, temper your self-confidence with a little self-doubt!”

Fortuitously for Dr. Krugman, his own assessment of what policies would minimize the worst outcomes in the presence of ambiguity about the evolution of inflation happened to coincide with the policies has has consistently advocated for in the past, based on his previous (and self-confident) predictions about how the future was likely to play out.  That is, he could comfortably afford to take his own advice because it didn’t actually compel him to change his mind about anything else.  At least this time…

I don’t fault him for that: sometimes the best argument also puts the one making it in the best light because — well — they were right all along.  I won’t pass judgment on whether or not that is true in the current case (because he is making an assertion about the proper conclusions to be drawn from abstruse mathematical models of economics — which I do know a fair amount about but which, nonetheless, lies well beyond the bounds of my own expertise), but I will grant that he believes so and that there is no revisionism or obvious self-aggrandizement in his narrative.  There is also, though, no evidence of any singular courage.

In my more cynical moments, the consistency of their policy prescriptions seems to me (as to many people) to be a dependable theme among progressives specifically and among ‘liberals’ generally: that, whatever the problem of the moment, and whatever the premises they grant as the bases of their analysis, their conclusion is always and inevitably that the government should spend more money and assume more authority to tell people what to do.

There is, of course, an equivalent tendency for ‘conservatives’ (and especially for the knuckleheaded authoritarians who currently claim to be conservative) to come to their own self-consistent conclusions about policy regardless of what problems they are trying to solve.

That is an essay for another day…

As it happens, I actually agree rather emphatically with Dr. Krugman’s general declaration of principle: it is always prudent to hedge your bets against the possibility that you are wrong.  That is, in fact, one among the various notions that make me generally a ‘conservative’.

In this case, however, I was interested more in his premise: that the ‘experts’ we rely upon for guiding those policy choices really should be far more humble about their grand proclamations.

I wrote this as an e-mail directly to Dr. Krugman.  Since I only sent it today, there has not been time to receive any kind of reply from him.  If and when I do, I will update this to reflect what he had to say.  Based, however, on prior experience, I expect such an update will not become necessary….

Note, 18 Nov 2021: It has not, as yet, become necessary to do an update…

17 October 2021

Ref: “The Power of ‘Nobody Knows’” (NYT, 15 Oct 2021)

I sincerely hope that ‘experts’ of all stripes — and not merely economists — take note of your admonition toward humility.

It isn’t that I’m a skeptic who dismisses and disparages expertise.  As an engineer and modestly successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I certainly can and do, myself, claim a large degree of  expertise on certain technical subjects.  As an amateur (but formally trained and prolific) theatrical set and lighting designer, I can claim, as well, some modest degree of expertise on the creation of live theatrical performances, at least on the scale of a community theater.  And, as an amateur (but educated) student of political science — who has written a book about the regrettable demise of honest conservatism — I can even claim some modicum of expertise on that subject.  And, on all those topics, I would hope that others might acknowledge and respect that expertise and, perhaps, weigh what I have to say on them somewhat more heavily than they would weigh the ignorant rantings of some random social media troll.

What I would never claim however, in any of those realms, is Godhood.  I can and do make mistakes.  There are, indeed, limits to my knowledge.  Some things truly are ambiguous.  Some decisions depend as much on value judgements as on knowledge.  And some things can, indeed, surprise me.

The kind of humility you advocate, however, is something one rarely sees among the ‘experts’ — within government and think-tanks and academia and the media — who routinely proclaim to us all that they know “the truth” and that the proper role and responsibility for the rest of us is simply to shut up and do as they say.

That may not be completely fair: it may be that the apparent hubris of expertise is exaggerated by reporters and a news media that is besotted with the idea of ‘expertise’ and, therefore, amplifies the voices of the most self-certain while muting the voices of the humble.  It may be that many or most experts are, indeed, well  aware of their self-limitations but that their voices are not the ones that the media chooses to tell us about; or, it may be that the various caveats and disclaimers with which they accompany their assertions never make it through the filter of the reporters’ perceptions into the news stories and analyses written about them.

And, it may also be that those, in particular, who choose to go into government are self-selected from among the most hubristic precisely because their very self-confidence leads them to the belief that they should also have the power to impose their chosen “solutions” upon others.

Regardless of the reason, however, what is presented as ‘expertise’ for public consumption is, all too often, the farthest thing from your humble ideal:  it is, rather, most often arrogant; and it is, far too frequently, also condescending.

And that arrogance and condescension is exacerbated by the fact that such experts frequently extend their claims to ‘expertise’ beyond what is justified by their training and experience.  A medical researcher will discover some (perhaps tentative) connection between a chemical or a food and some health state, like heart disease.  They will then not only exaggerate their certainty, proclaiming that the evidence of such connection is irrefutable and unequivocal (Eat this and you will die!), rather than provisional and subject to chance, but will also proclaim, with equal certainty, that a particular policy prescription — Ban that chemical! — is, by extension, mandatory; and they will claim that their policy prescription is simply a matter of “following the science” and is, therefore, also wholly within their ‘expertise’, as if such policies have no other economic or practical or emotional or moral dimensions beyond the narrow realm of “science” that might require consideration.

We saw that in the pandemic responses.  Anti-vax and anti-mask people are, truly, mostly wingnuts.  But that doesn’t change the fact that an epidemiologist’s scientific conclusion about how Covid spreads is, indeed, a matter of science; but whether or not to respond to that conclusion by mandating mask wearing or vaccination, or by shutting down the economy and locking everyone into their homes, is decidedly not a scientific decision.  Such things affect, and are affected by, much more than merely the epidemiology of Covid transmission: they drag in value judgements about risk and about various alternate conceptions and measures of ‘good’, including not only economic and civic and logistical and social and emotional well-being but, also, fundamental philosophical and moral questions about how much we should and may trade some amount of liberty for some amount of security, about who gets to decide on such things, and about who has the right to impose them.  People have fought wars over those questions.  Declaring them beyond debate because — “science!” — is not only a sign of rampant hubris but also intellectually and morally dishonest.

And, over the years, we have seen the same thing in the debates over climate change and what to do about it.  Acknowledging that the climate is changing, and that it is doing so as the result of human activity, is to acknowledge the slow but inexorable accumulation of evidence.  It is, indeed, “science”.  Assessing what the magnitude and timing of such change might be in the future is also “science”, though in its more speculative aspect: such projections are hypotheses that have yet to be proven, not observations of established fact.  And, assessing the projected impacts, both positive and negative, on human well-being of such projected changes is also “science” — albeit more of the ‘dismal’ kind than not and, as the product of projections spun from other projections, doubly prone to ambiguity and error.

But highlighting only the most extreme and pessimistic (and, often, the least likely) of such speculative assessments when reporting on them is, at best, a parody of “science”.

And demanding, in response to those speculative assessments, that implementation of a particular policy or set of policies is also a matter of “science” is fundamentally dishonest.  I have believed for a long time that it is actually such widespread assertion among climate-change activists — the assertion that mandating certain collectivist and authoritarian government policies is the inevitable and necessary response to acknowledging the reality of climate change — which has created the environment in which so many people still deny it.

Perhaps (almost certainly) we must do something about climate change.  I would love to see a robust and realistic debate about how bad climate change is really likely to be as a preface to the debate about what that something is.  But, in an environment where anything less than parroting the most alarmist and pessimistic predictions is considered to be “denialism” — that is, “denying the science” — that debate can’t happen.

Similarly, there are a variety of proposals for dealing with climate change using both market mechanisms and less draconian governmental actions — for example, the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax has been around for decades and has been endorsed by various high-profile ‘conservatives’ for nearly that long.  And there are various proposals for mitigating the effects of climate change using geo-engineering and carbon-capture technologies.

But, again, in an environment where anyone not wholly on-board with the government imposing various “net-zero” policies by fiat and regulation is accused of “denying the science”, we can’t have a real and informed debate over what the best policies might actually be.

In all those cases, a bit of humility on the part of the ‘experts’ — and a critical self-examination of where their expertise actually ends and other’s expertise begins — might make coming to agreement on what we ought to be doing much easier.


© Copyright 2021, Augustus P. Lowell

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