Experts and Democracy

Tod Kelly wondered whether the Internet was making us stupider and less inclined to listen to experts on various fields. Various OTers pointed out that distrusting expert is a very old American tradition and has existed long before the Internet. I think the real issue is that experts often forget that they are human and have never really learned to work in the world of representative democracy.

The United States is a representative democracy for better or for worse. Maybe we should elect people more for their judgment and expertise even if we disagree with them but ultimately most people are going vote for the candidate that advocates closest to said voters social and economic and other wants and desires. A lot of experts are seemingly not very good at rhetoric or convincing people. The standard expert seems to think that their research speaks for itself and is unsure how to talk to people beyond asking people to read their white paper or just to trust said expert.

A big part of this is because a lot of experts are introduced to the American public as being closely identified to one political party or through a think tank with known political and ideological leanings. Paul Ryan is often presented as the Republican Party budget expert. He often tries to present himself as a GOP expert and that he is a nerdy numbers guy. This might be true but to accept Paul Ryan as a budget expert means you need to start with agreeing with the Republican vision of limited government. This is not about whether the Republican vision is correct or incorrect, I am merely noting that there are a lot of people in the United States who disagree with the Republican vision of government and this makes them less inclined to see Paul Ryan as a budget expert. A true budget expert would be able to look at the budget without an ideological issues. If the people wanted a generous welfare state and universal healthcare, a true budget expert would be able to devise a budget that incorporated these desires. There would be nothing about debating whether these things should be part of government spending. The same is true if the majority disliked welfare spending.

The centre-left version of this is probably New Urbanism. The New Urbanists argue for policies that prefer use density, public transportation, and mixed used buildings because it has less of an environmental impact than sprawling suburbs and going to and from work by car. They also tend to be unrepentant neo-liberals with a “grow, grow, grow” mantra. I think they are right. I am also still fairly young and childless and enjoy being able to walk to grocery stores, restaurants, bars, movies, the library, and other places. One of my least favorite things to do in the world is to look for parking. However, I am not as young as I used to be and it is starting to be more annoying to deal with the person in the apartment building next door who likes to play thumping club music relatively loudly. It is also starting to be more annoying to hear twenty-somethings doing coming home at 2 in the morning while they are being very drunk and very loud. I think these things will continue to be annoying as I get older and maybe one day I will prefer peace and quiet to being able to walk to a movie theatre or the grocery store or the gym. The New Urbanists generally seem to place much value in peace and quiet. I imagine if you brought up these concerns to a new urbanist, they would tell the person to invest in a white noise machine or a set of noise-cancelling headphones.

The last issue is that I think most people (whether they are honest about it or not) start with the conclusion and then work backwards to find the evidence. I wonder if this partially comes from the fact that America works on an adversarial mode of litigation where lawyers, who usually end up as politicians because lawyers are interested in law making (shocker!) are supposed to be zealous advocates for their clients and not for what is necessarily the truth. Texas once again looks like they are going to execute a seriously mentally ill man despite the United States Supreme Court declaring this to be unconstitutional. This is not the first or last time I will read a story like the Slate article. There is not only still profound ideological disagreement about the death penalty but I suspect that there is profound ideological disagreement about whether we should execute mentally ill people or not. The cynic in me wonders if there are still a lot of people with quasi-eugenic or eugenic based belief systems and these people think they are doing humanity a favor by removing a paranoid-schizophrenic from the earth. So to believe experts on whether someone is mentally ill or not is probably going to require a universal consensus that it is at least unconstitutional and immoral to execute people who are mentally ill. Without this consensus, a prosecutor is merely going to go expert shopping until they find an expert that is willing to say “This defendant is mentally competent to stand trial and face the death penalty.” I would applaud a prosecutor who tells the press that defendant X is too incompetent to stand trial even after Defendant X committed a horrible crime but I have doubts about how often that will happen. There are no incentives to reward that kind of ethics and morality in our system.

There is a famous scene in Citizen Kane where Orson Wells as Kane brags and celebrates about taking all the top newspaper men from his competitor. Joseph Cotton’s character depressively wonders about why these top guys would go from supporting the competitor’s policies to supporting the policies of Kane’s paper. Everett Sloane’s character, Mr. Bernstein, simply replies because the top newspapermen are just like everyone else and they have families to feed but the difference is that they are the top newspapermen.

The other thing is that experts often seem to be blissfully unaware that they are also human and like all humans are prone to ideological beliefs, confirmation bias, and error. I wonder how many experts become experts because they have a vision of how the world ought to be instead of wanting to work with the world as it is and this includes people and all their contradictory desires. When I get angry at experts it is often because they are all but admitting they would like people to be programmable robots instead of being the messy, emotional, and social creatures we are.

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28 thoughts on “Experts and Democracy

  1. It seems like experts very often, depending on how ideological they are, don’t’ admit or see their own biases. Especially their personal beliefs. But non-experts want to just cherry pick the experts they like to buttress their preferred beliefs. Expert knowledge has an important role but is only really useful when people examine their own beliefs about what they want to believe and the ideology of the expert. It isn’t an either vs or situation. For most things we need expert knowledge to have even a clue given how complex our society is. But if we just pick the expert opinion that backs up what we want to hear, we don’t’ really understand much.

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    • If we, experts or not, could see our biases in everything we think and do, we wouldn’t have biases, we’d be perfect reasoners (with imperfect knowledge), and not human. The point of dialogue, which on every public policy issue should include experts and non-experts, is to work out a consensus by making each other aware of various views and as much information as possible, since we’re all limited to our perspectives and partial knowledge individually.

      Dialogue breaks down not because we aren’t aware of our biases — that is, again, part of what dialogue is for — but because we limit the voices, and therefore the consensus that can come out of it.

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      • Dialogue breaks down not because we aren’t aware of our biases — that is, again, part of what dialogue is for — but because we limit the voices, and therefore the consensus that can come out of it.

        This doesn’t seem entirely right. There are theoretical reasons to think that a free for all discourse will, when the truth is complicated and/or counter-intuitive, systematically produce falsehoods. Also, if you look at paradigmatically successful instances of enquiry (i.e. the hard sciences), you can see that it is not a free for all. In fact, there are gatekeeping mechanisms that prevent crackpots from pushing their own theory. There are mechanisms in place that serve to counter the biases that other researchers may have. In academic and research settings, not just anyone gets to talk. And not just anything goes. This is one reason why the social sciences, which are so much messier can still generate a significant amount of consensus. The point is not to take one expert’s testimony as divine revelation, but to weight the consensus produced by the field as a whole more heavily than one’s own opinion.

        The point is not that experts are somehow superhuman. It is that they are part of a discursive community which has evolved certain mechanisms that eliminate or at least greatly reduce the effects of a number of systematic biases we have.

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    • Well thanks for doing the pithy version of my post! :)

      I like the term Lee used below of wonk-advocate. I suspect that the big problem is that most of the time the general public sees an expert, they are really seeing a “wonk-advocate”. Or as Chris called them opinion-journalists. We lack public intellectuals who can explain things to a lay public in interesting ways. The Brits seem to have many public intellectuals and lay experts even in academic fields like art history and classics (Mary Beard). BBC and Channel 4 Documentaries are much more interesting and lively than History Channel documentaries.

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      • Glad i could help out. As someone who actually testifies in court as an expert witness the one big thing i seeing lacking from most Experts in our political life is acknowledgement and discussion of the limits of their results. No report or paper or experiment answers every question or completely takes care of every question. It is vital to say what are the limits of what the particular opinion is, what else needs to be known, how certain are the results. Of course if an expert is slipping into advocate mode they tend not want to talk about that and the press does a crap job of reporting on science in general and even worse with expert type opinions.

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      • We lack public intellectuals who can explain things to a lay public in interesting ways.

        That might be true as compared to Britain, but we do have Neil de Grasse Tyson (and despite my reservations about him, he seems dynamic and interesting to a lot of people) and we used to have Carl Sagan. Those are the hard sciences, of course, and I confess I have a hard time thinking of a humanities “public intellectual,” but they seem to exist, at least in history (the “presidential historians” trotted out by the Newshour every four years and professional historians turn occasional columnists a la Eric Foner, Sean Wilentz, Michael Kazin, and Leon Fink).

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  2. experts often forget that they are human and have never really learned to work in the world of representative democracy.

    True, but to be fair, most people never really have.

    Gruber’s an excellent case in point. He seems to have had no expectation that publicly admitting to the need to fool a gullible public would create a shitstorm, and he also failed several times when publishing essays on healthcare reform to mention that he was a paid consultant to HHS, which is an ethical breach and in violation of the policies of some of the organs in which he was published.

    I know a couple of people personally who are staunch technocrats, and when I point out that technocracy can tell us _how_ to achieve a goal but can’t tell us what goals to have because it can’t tell us what our values should be, they respond by arguing that they _can_ as technocratic experts, tell us what our values should be.

    I don’t think they’re really different from the rest of us in that way. We’re all always telling others what their values should be, after all.

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    • Yeah, he’s a good example of what my grandfather would call an “egghead”. Very smart, perhaps, but lacking in common sense, street smarts, etc.

      “they respond by arguing that they _can_ as technocratic experts, tell us what our values should be.” Yeah, it’s idiots like this that scare me. I’m smart and I know how you should live your life. Right….

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  3. Like James, I don’t think experts tend to be any more divorced from the workings of a democracy than anyone else. In fact, the experts who actually work on policy are probably less divorced from it than most. Ask any transit expert working with a city who the various stakeholders are in a transit debate, how their interests compete, and who is likely to win out in various aspects of planning and implementation, and why (money and votes, mostly), and you will likely get a thorough answer, much more thorough than even the non-experts on the various voting bodies in many cases. Why? Because part of being an expert at intersection of theory and practice is understanding what’s possible within a particular civic environment.

    Experts not involved in policy making will tend to be like everyone else in a democratic society who isn’t involved in policy making: completely bound in their thinking by what they see between their eyes the tip of their noses.

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    • It might be useful to separate experts from wonk-advocates in this case. People like Yglesias like to present themselves as experts but they really aren’t because they have no practical education or experience in the field. Yglesias is only a wonk-advocate for transit but he never actually worked in designing a public transportation system or running one or advocating a city improve their transit system at the political level. He is more of wonk-advocate, basically a paid hobbyist, than a real expert. Its the wonk-advocates that are divorced from democracy because they never really interacted with it besides voting and writing for something.

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      • I like the term wonk-advocate. I suspect that a lot of the problems are because most of the experts in the public sphere are really wonk-advocates and opinion-journalists.

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      • I like the term wonk-advocate

        This is important. Merely having a PhD in physics does not mean you can spout off about global warming or evolution.

        So, Yglesias is himself not an expert, but it may be that he himself defers to the real experts on a given topic. Or maybe he’s not.

        But when we talk about experts, we don’t mean public intellectuals. Public intellectuals often talk out of their asses. Moreover, we can’t even look at one single published research paper. We have to look at something like a published review paper which tells us if there is a current consensus on a given topic and where that consensus is if any exists. And even then its difficult. On a politically controversial topics, there can be temptation to portray a given view as a consensus even if there is substantive disagreement by other experts in the relevant field, especially when speaking to lay persons rather than other experts.

        Does that mean that keeping track of who the experts are and what the consensus is is just as assessing the first order evidence? no. Or at least not most of the time. The current academic system with peer reviewed publications creates one set of distinguishing criteria for determining who is an expert. Having lots of published articles on a given area in top journals often indicates that the person does research which other trained and competent researchers regard as being of a high standard. Having a PhD indicates that someone is familiar with the basics and is also capable of producing a significant amount of good original research. Another indicator of whether a given view is part of the mainstream expert consensus is whether it is found in an undergraduate textbook.

        Given that we already have some rough and ready indicators for whether a person is an expert and whether a given view is a consensus among experts, the problem is more tractable.

        Now, it may turn out that there are few experts in particularly controversial areas, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas where there are readily identifiable experts whom we could defer to

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    • Because part of being an expert at intersection of theory and practice is understanding what’s possible within a particular civic environment.

      See how easy this is? I’m an expert at determining what I feel about how policy should go; academics are experts at how an idealized model – or models! – say policy should go; and then there are experts at the intersection between those two things.

      So many experts, no? Why should my choice be valued any higher than other folks, again?

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  4. I would add that one tool to separate faux experts from their more substantive brethren relates to the alignment between the person making the decision and the person paying the costs and reaping the benefits of acting upon this “expertise.”

    Expertise requires feedback loops. In science it is the feedback loop of empirical verification or falsification and the social pressure of being proven wrong. In markets it is the feedback of profit and loss. In sports it is the feedback of results. For an inventor it is whether the fame thing works or not.

    In investing, one might consider a person an expert if they can routinely outperform the market. Since the data clearly shows that pretty much nobody does (beyond chance) I would suggest there is no such thing as an investment expert as previously defined. Indeed, if someone presents themselves this way they are probably a professional bullshitter. However, there is such a thing if we re-define an expert as one who can guide us in making decisions to balance our risks and desires and deal with taxes and trusts. Thus the issue is related to what they are an expert in. There are investment professionals, but we need to keep in mind how far their expertise goes so we can decide what it is worth (paying twenty five percent of our annual risk adjusted expected rate of return may be a bit much for someone providing guidance).

    Politics is extremely dangerous, because the results are extremely complex and messy and the costs are often paid by others. I see something similar in most sociology fields, including the almost science of economics itself. As discussed in Tod’s post, the very demand for experts is creating charlatans to fill the roles.

    My suggestion here is to limit the influence of the experts as we have with the investment experts above. One important way of doing this is to minimize using coercion to force someone else to act on the advice of experts. So called experts can try to convince us of their advice (possibly competing with contrary experts) but we decide which advice to follow and we reap the rewards and costs of the decision (which ends up being whether to listen to any of them). This aligns feedback.

    Of course this is not always possible. It is a good rule of thumb though.

    If one is truly skeptical of experts, one would also be skeptical of politics in general to solve problems outside a narrow domain. Politics is the domain of bullshitters, not experts.

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  5. I’m just finding this post today for the first time. (No idea why.)

    My response, if I could boil it down to its essence, is this:

    Yes, I get that there has always been an populist and therefore anti-elitist element creating a tension with expert-backers in American society. But has there ever been a period — as I believe we might well be headed right now — where there is nothing but two different competing populisms, where every side with power was celebrating ignorance from the experts?

    Because that to me seems like a very new thing.

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    • This is a tricky question. I think that the concept of experts is relatively new. The problem is that experts often pose existential threats to our ways of life and people are often resistant to change. There are also times that experts often only seem to offer extreme solutions and changes instead of “these are little things that you can do.” Environmentalism and climate change are a good issue here. I see a lot of hectoring about almond consumption because it allegedly takes a gallon of water to grow one almond and 10 percent of California’s water supply goes to Almond production. Almonds are also very good for you health-wise. So how much should almond consumption be cut back? A lot of articles on the environmental problems with various foods seems to amount to “Everything you do and eat is horrible and we should just die.”

      The same should go for economics. We’ve debated before that the economy might be in a paradigm shift and there might be 40-60 years of low-paying and low-benefit jobs in the United States because of outsourcing and globalization. The economists all present this as natural. 19th century economists saw boom bust cycles as natural and believed that depressions were necessary to self-correct the economy. Any government intervention was wrong including relief for the suffering. The problem is that people still suffered and starved. Why should someone accept a lay off or lower wages just because economists (who don’t really suffer) say it is natural and necessary?

      I’ll also be partisan and say that the Democratic populists still come from a place of expertise. Elizabeth Warren is considered to be the head of the economic populist wing of the Democratic Party. She is also a former Harvard law professor with a focus on banking regulations and bankruptcy. She is not exactly William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long. Sherrod Brown is also a populist but he is not quite a Long or a Bryan either, same with De Blasio. I think all three are willing to try anything to raise the circumstances of working and middle class Americans. Warren is merely calling for bringing back the old regulations that were set up in the wake of the Great Depression and those regulations did pretty well until dismantled during the 1990s.

      The situation in the Democratic Party right now seems similar to the split between the Bourbon Democrats (now the DLC-Clinton wing) and the Populists during the 19th century but our populists are now more credentialed.

      Which experts are the Democratic Party ignoring? Why should people accept privation because an expert says their privation is necessary for the sake of free trade? Also as Stillwater said, each side has always had their own experts for various points.

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      • Regarding almonds, try switching them out for walnuts. Most walnuts grown in California are grown on rootstocks of native or near-native walnut trees that are drought-tolerant and need much less water than almonds. Also, walnuts have a much more favorable omega-3/omega-6 ratio.

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      • That was just the example that came to my head. My mom is trying to cut diary out and has switched to Almond milk. I also think Walnuts are really dry. My preferred not is the cashew.

        The point was really more about the doom-saying and hectoring moralism. I’m still waiting for more widespread pressing from the idiotic voluntary extinction crowd.

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      • It isn’t necessarily “hectoring moralism” to point out the consequences of somebody’s actions, right? Sure, it can devolve to that, but if it’s true that participating in the almond market is contributing to serious problems, what’s the problem in pointing that out and expressing concern?

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