Experts, Public Policy and Private Choices

Covid-19 has mentally exhausted us.  One of the reasons this is so is because it has highlighted the difficulty in how we regard experts. Obviously, we would be very wise to listen to experts when they speak from their fields of expertise. For instance, medical doctors are not merely self-proclaimed experts nor is their expertise something that the common person can easily duplicate. The neurosurgeon who cut my head open and operated on my brain after my first stroke saved my life. I wouldn’t have entrusted that scalpel to some random know-it-all on the internet or on the local bar stool. 

But there is actual expertise in specific areas. And then there is a dangerous tendency to accept a drifting expertise that pushes the boundaries of its usefulness. A Labrador retriever is useful for duck hunting—until it decides on its own to leave the blind and take a swim in the pond, flaring the incoming ducks out of shotgun range. Having a PhD in mathematics does not make one an expert concerning the spread of infectious diseases. And being an expert on infectious diseases doesn’t make one an expert on economic impacts relating to infectious diseases.  By its nature, expertise is limited to a specific field. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be expertise. More caution is warranted when that expertise migrates outside of its narrow scope to something that seems to be “kinda-sorta” near the area of actual expertise. 

Also, we sometimes assume experts have enough information about the topic they are discussing. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case and we don’t know the limits of their information if they don’t tell us. For instance, in my younger years and based on less knowledge than exists now, the message was ubiquitous to substitute margarine for butter because margarine was supposed to be the healthy alternative. We were so advised by the public health experts, in school, by the government and by the media. The problem was, margarine contains hydrogenated vegetable oil, also known as trans fat. Much is still unknown about eating fat but one thing has now become quite clear—eating trans fat is a really bad idea. Big oops. 

When it comes to making public policy, there is rarely only one field of expertise that warrants consideration. But humans, both policy makers and the recipients of such policy, tend toward reductivism. After all, it’s much easier to live in a world of bromides. Each of us tends to carry with us a certain limited number of narratives and we seem almost hard wired to process new information in such a way so that we can simply use it to confirm an existing narrative. It takes a lot more intellectual and emotional effort to consider different things and ways of thinking.  Thus, we don’t fully process new information for what it’s telling us. Rather, we absorb or reject the new information in small pieces and weaponize it to buttress existing narratives. 

So in terms of effectuating wise and useful public policy, we have actual humans making the policies on the big assumption that actual humans will behave in a certain way in response to that policy. That often leads to predictably unpredictable results. 

That brings me to Covid-19. Humans have encountered pandemics before. But we have never encountered one in the full blown Information Age.  The internet has allowed everyone to become an instant author. Unfortunately, that’s also allowed many to become instant, self-anointed experts. Alternatively, many of us don’t wish to claim actual expertise but we still are stuck with the tedious task of panning for mental expert gold. 

Further, Covid-19’s most insidious effect seems to be that it has made us all mentally and emotionally exhausted. We don’t want to get infected. We don’t want to spread it. We want to work, to run our businesses and to pay our bills. We want our children to have normal lives and normal schooling. We don’t want our medical providers to get sick from treating us. And we try to make sense of how to handle it all so we look for guidance. Then we look away because our search for guidance leaves us even more exhausted. So making good public policy is rendered even more difficult because we are not even sure how to handle this pandemic on an individual and family level. 

When I was recovering from my strokes, I found it helpful to define my priorities and then focus on the top priority. That gave me the chance to take a mental breath and then identify something useful to do. This didn’t mean discarding everything else in a reductivist attempt to toss all my cognitively dirty clothes on the closet floor and shut the door. Rather, I gave myself permission to focus on one thing at a time. That liberated my tired, muddled mind.  My body may have been neurologically paralyzed but I realized that my mind didn’t need to wallow in a state of mental and emotional paralysis. I could make choices. I could do things. Then I could hear actual experts, (doctors, psychiatrists, therapists) sharing their actual expertise about the things that I had chosen to prioritize for myself. That helped me make progress and then slowly expand my list of priorities. And that reveals the positive side of humans behaving like humans. Once I’d cleared my mind of the dirt and the mud, I could actually see the gold on the bottom of the pan. And that encouraged me to keep mining and I ended up enriched through the experience. Humans behave well when they feel encouraged and enriched. 

Right now, I certainly don’t feel like I will end up enriched by the Covid-19 experience. But I surely won’t find out unless I reject mental paralysis by clearing my mind and giving it permission to not figure everything out.  Much of what I thought I understood about Covid-19 has turned out to be wrong or nebulous anyway. So I think I’ll prioritize getting outside right now, going for a walk and then thinking of a friend or family member who might appreciate a phone call. That should be enough for now. And then I might be ready to absorb some helpful expertise.

Copyright September 18, 2020 by Daniel Blake

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