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Stephen Staley: The cult of expertise has gone too far

Commentary

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies during a Senate hearing in Washington, Sept. 14, 2022. Cliff Owen/AP Photo.

“By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.”

– GK Chesterton, March 1911

Recently, I made the classic mistake of engaging in an online argument. It wasn’t in a hostile subreddit or on a distant relative’s Facebook page filled with conspiracy theories but in a seemingly innocuous WhatsApp discussion group. Yet, I found myself ensnared in a debate that underscored a growing trend in our public discourse: the blind deference to “experts.”

The particular argument that got me wound up on this occasion was when someone decried the trend of disagreeing with “experts” which he described as “denialism.” Variations on this argument have been hurtling around the public sphere in recent years, often described as a war on experts, or expertise.

Given there has been an increasing amount of commentary on this topic in our public discourse recently, I thought it worth addressing in a more comprehensive argument than I was able to deliver to strangers in a WhatsApp group.

To begin, if expertise is a club, it’s one that should have more stringent entry requirements. The criteria for being labelled an “expert” on a TV panel, in a news article, or during a public debate have become alarmingly loose and flexible. Often, the label of “expert” hinges on a plethora of increasingly dubious credentials based on esoteric or narrowly focused theories, rather than on practical or productive experience. Credentialism is the art of knowing everything about nothing, and nothing about everything

This problem is exacerbated by the media’s tendency to start with a predetermined thesis, and then seek out “experts” biased in their favour, constructing arguments around this shaky foundation. Those with opposing views are often dismissed as foolishly anti-expert if their position is acknowledged at all.

For much of modern academic credentialism, particularly outside the hard sciences, you could make a very plausible argument that the PhD class should have their perspectives discounted as a result of their degrees, rather than elevated.

Lest Hub readers think this an overly glib broadside against academia, I strongly encourage you to glance through this random sampling of doctoral recipients of grants from the National Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Remember, these aren’t 19-year-old undergraduates, these are for doctoral programs, the most educated of the expert class.

While I am not an expert in “Affect and Fat Feminist Futures” or “The Alternative Media Fight For Activist Visibility During The 1976 Montreal Olympics,” I feel confident in saying that these niche fields of study do not necessarily bestow a level of expertise that warrants unwavering trust in their judgement or knowledge.

Even on topics that are more germane to public life and tend to be given more credence by Canadians, an impressive-sounding credential is not a guarantor of broadly sound expert judgement.

When our families are unwell, we rightfully seek the wisdom of doctors and medical professionals. For diagnosing serious symptoms and prescribing treatments, we are fortunate to have dedicated and skilled doctors in Canada who serve our families with care and expertise.

However, when it comes to policy decisions related to public health, rather than individual medical cases, the past five years have shown that being a skilled physician does not automatically equate to expertise in public health policy.

Medical doctors worked their tails off to keep patients alive and well during the pandemic, but medical doctors also provided policy air cover for wrapping the cherry blossoms in caution tape, physically preventing children from playing pond hockey, and demanding that if you were going to sit in a park you must do so in a giant painted circle.

What’s more, the broader point illustrated by public health policy throughout the pandemic is that on any one of those policies there were experienced doctors arguing on both sides. These issues aren’t binary scientific facts like the laws of gravity, they are policy choices that involve trade-offs, contain dozens of overlapping factors and interests, and have implications that extend far beyond the field of expertise of the doctors recommending them.

One of the reasons those of us with experience inside government were so suspicious of giving complete dominion over our lives and societies to public health bureaucracies is because we knew that by and large these “experts” are merely policy advocates. Sure, they have training and experience, but that doesn’t mean their ideas and policies were written on stone tablets that emanated from the summit of the Mount of Objective Scientific Truth.

The same folks advocating during the pandemic that you could fly but not drive into our country(!?), that children couldn’t use a slide or a swingset, or that sitting in a restaurant for 90 minutes unmasked was fine as long as you wore a mask for the 14 steps to your table—these are the same people whose policy agenda in normal times focuses on restricting the use of smoking cessation products (but not cigarettes), wood-fired ovens, or the sale of sodas they deem to be too large.

This isn’t to argue that any of those policies are wrong (though they are), but merely to make the point that these are policy choices that should be hammered out and debated by politicians, who can and should be held accountable by voters. They should not be delegated to a supposed expert class of high priests.

Lest you think I’m too focused on re-litigating pandemic grievances, let’s take another example: economics. John Maynard Keynes was an expert economist. So was Milton Friedman. They disagreed about much of modern economics, monetary theory, and how government policy of all kinds should be crafted and implemented. If I agree more with Keynes and think Friedman is a radical who should be ignored or dismissed, am I a simple rube who is foolishly and dangerously waging war against “expertise”? How about vice versa?

Or how about those doctors who advocate for providing opioids to addicts to reduce the likelihood of drug overdose or other negative outcomes? Are they the real experts, or should that title sit with those doctors who oppose such practices? I have strong views on this topic, as there are strong views on the other side, and as much as slices of the academic, activist, and pundit class want to label those of us on one side or the other heretics for our positions, their appeal to authority should be viewed with deep skepticism.

There are smart and experienced people on all sides of major policy debates, and experts of all stripes inform those ideas. They often overlap, compete, contrast, and otherwise chafe against simple, non-nuanced solutions. Pick a fraught, contentious public policy and choose a side to argue from. You almost certainly have experts both for you and against you.

Political commentary is where this war on expertise becomes truly farcical. At the risk of offending many faculties and degree-holders, the truth is that political science is an oxymoron, not an objective discipline. Those who have the strongest academic credentials in this space are just as likely as your Uncle Dave to have a reasonable perspective on what the electorate is going to do, or why.

When it comes to political debates, life experience and common sense are at least as effective barometers of sound policy as your nearest poli-sci PhD, and your coffee shop chats with your colleagues and neighbours a better gauge of political sentiment than the latest opinion column you read (this one notwithstanding, of course).

We are not governed by experts in this country, nor should we yearn for that. We are governed by a broad cross-section of citizens from different backgrounds who bring the perspectives of their constituents to our legislatures and shape and pass laws on that basis. Experienced experts from relevant fields should inform our policies and legislation, but so should parents, business leaders, factory workers, and farmers. At the end of the day, it is not academics or the permanent bureaucracy who will be held accountable when policies succeed or fail, so Canadians should not, and do not, expect them to have the final word.

We are free people in this country. Free to inform ourselves and speak our minds. Free to research and advocate for policies and causes that matter to us. Perhaps we would take a little heat out of our public discourse and shed a bit more light if we grappled with ideas on their merits and educated ourselves deeply enough to do so, rather than blindly acceding to a notional expert class who attempt to claim the permanent and unwavering high ground.

Patrick Luciani: What Pierre Poilievre can learn from Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s surging conservative star

Commentary

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks at the G7 in Borgo Egnazia, Italy, Saturday, June 15, 2024. Andrew Medichini/AP Photo.

At the last G7 meeting in Southern Italy, one clear winner emerged: Italy’s Giorgia Meloni. In office as prime minister for only two years, she is one of Europe’s most popular leaders, while her Brothers of Italy party made impressive gains in the recent election to the European Parliament. None of this was predicted when she was first elected when the media quickly doubted her talents and abhorred her party’s fascist past.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial stated, Meloni is the only leader who may not be a political lame duck. In contrast, Britain’s Rishi Sunak looks to go down in the U.K.’s election on July 4; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition party took a beating in the European elections, as did Emmanuel Macron with the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. Japan’s Fumio Kishida has abysmal approval ratings, while U.S. Democrats see their leader quickly fading and fearing the worst in Biden’s debate with Trump on June 27. At home, Canadians are counting the days to the national elections next year.

How has Meloni managed to avoid the fates of her male counterparts while gaining popularity in the process? What lessons can conservative leaders learn from her success, including Pierre Poilievre? Here are five lessons they should keep in mind.

First, tradition and identity matter. Giorgia Meloni never hid her pride as an Italian, a mother, a woman, and a Christian. It would be hard to live in Italy and deny the importance of tradition and the family, while most social scientists see them as impediments to progress.

Shame never occurred to Meloni when defending her identity and national pride, though they were ridiculed as sexist, homophobic, and elitist. Meloni pushed hard against the postmodern notion that values and morality are relative. The louder she proclaimed her independence on what her values were, the more they were met with wide support from a public that thirsted for someone to reflect what many believed but were too frightened and intimidated to say out loud. In contrast with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who refused to define a woman at her confirmation hearings, Meloni knows exactly what a woman is.

Second, the importance of history and culture. If there is one damaging aspect to hyper-liberal progressive thought, it is the importance of crushing history and traditional culture. Both are seen as an opening to conservative, reactionary thought where the solution is to repress the temptation to learn from the past. Progressives demand that history must answer to the present for the sins of patriarchy, subjugation of women, homophobia, and white supremacy. A nonsensical notion, of course. Meloni’s appeal is her support of Italian culture in all its forms and history, good and bad. Strong leaders don’t run from the past.

Third, know that the media is not your friend. It would be hard to believe that Meloni has or takes seriously advisors on handling the media. The national and international press has always introduced her as the far-Right Italian leader, never failing to mention her party’s fascist past. She revels in the name-calling, referring to herself as “that bitch Meloni,” turning a liability into an advantage as the underdog fighting an elite press that wants to see her fail. This is a lesson Canadian conservatives too often fail to heed. Just know that whatever you do, you will be labelled a fascist, no matter how fair or not.

Fourth, moral clarity on international affairs. When many conservative or right-wing politicians are seduced by authoritarian leaders, including Vladimir Putin, Meloni knows right from wrong and would never follow the same path as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has become a mouthpiece for the Russian leader and an apologist for Putin’s barbaric war against Ukraine. She also is a strong supporter of Israel in its war with Hamas and won’t waiver. Meloni supports a strong NATO, and the money to back it, as any real conservative should do.

Fifth is the problem of immigration. Meloni and her party were elected to stop illegal immigration, a problem that has changed the political landscape of the European Union and the U.K. So far, she has disappointed her supporters. Paying off Tunisia hasn’t worked while the EU refuses to allocate funds to help resettle the thousands that land on easy-to-reach Italian islands in the Mediterranean. Meloni knows that uncontrolled immigration might determine her political future. If Biden loses in November, illegal immigration will be at the top of the list. Poilievre should take heed of the lessons here.