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Experts are either derided or held up as all-seeing gurus. Time to reboot the relationship between expertise and democracy
In 2002, a distinguished historian wrote that the widely told tales of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs in the late 19th-century United States were myths. Richard Jensen at the University of Illinois said that such signs were inventions, ‘myths of victimisation’, passed down from Irish immigrants to their children until they reached the unassailable status of urban legends. For more than a decade, most historians accepted Jensen’s scholarship, while opponents were dismissed – sometimes by Jensen himself – as Irish-American loyalists.
In a 2015 story that seemed to encapsulate the death of expertise, an eighth-grader named Rebecca Fried claimed that Jensen was wrong, not least because of research she did on Google. She was respectful, but determined. ‘He has been doing scholarly work for decades before I was born, and the last thing I want to do was show disrespect for him and his work,’ she said later. It all seemed to be just another case of a precocious child telling an experienced teacher – an emeritus professor of history, no less – that he had not done his homework.
But, as it turns out, she was right and he was wrong. Such signs existed, and they weren’t that hard to find.
For years, other scholars had wrestled with Jensen’s claims, but they fought with his work inside the thicket of professional historiography. Meanwhile, outside the academy, Jensen’s assertion was quickly accepted and trumpeted as a case of an imagined grievance among Irish-Americans.
Young Rebecca, however, did what a sensible person would: she started looking through databases of old newspapers. She found the signs, as the Daily Beast later reported, ‘collecting a handful of examples, then dozens, then more. She went to as many newspaper databases as she could. Then she thought, somebody had to have done this before, right?’ As it turned out, neither Jensen nor anyone else had apparently bothered to do this basic fact-checking. Miss Fried has now entered high school with a published piece in the Journal of Social History, and she is not alone in overturning the status quo.
In the 1970s, the top nutritional scientists in the US told the government that eggs, among many other foods, might be lethal. There could be no simpler application of Occam’s Razor, with a trail leading from the barnyard to the morgue. Eggs contain a lot of cholesterol, cholesterol clogs arteries, clogged arteries cause heart attacks, and heart attacks kill people. The conclusion was obvious: Americans need to get all that cholesterol out of their diet. And so they did. Then something unexpected happened: Americans gained a lot of weight and started dying of other things.
The egg scare was based on a cascade of flawed studies, some going back almost a half century. People who want to avoid eggs can still do so, of course. In fact, there are now studies that suggest that skipping breakfast entirely – which scientists have also long been warning against – isn’t as bad as anyone thought either.
Experts get things wrong all the time. The effects of such errors range from mild embarrassment to wasted time and money; in rarer cases, they can result in death, and even lead to international catastrophe. And yet experts regularly ask citizens to trust expert judgment and to have confidence not only that mistakes will be rare, but that the experts will identify those mistakes and learn from them.
Day to day, laypeople have no choice but to trust experts. We live our lives embedded in a web of social and governmental institutions meant to ensure that professionals are in fact who they say they are, and can in fact do what they say they do. Universities, accreditation organisations, licensing boards, certification authorities, state inspectors and other institutions exist to maintain those standards.
This daily trust in professionals is a prosaic matter of necessity. It is in much the same way that we trust everyone else in our daily lives, including the bus driver we assume isn’t drunk or the restaurant worker we assume has washed her hands. This is not the same thing as trusting professionals when it comes to matters of public policy: to say that we trust our doctors to write us the correct prescription is not the same thing as saying that we trust all medical professionals about whether the US should have a system of national healthcare. To say that we trust a college professor to teach our sons and daughters the history of the Second World War is not the same as saying that we therefore trust all academic historians to advise the president of the US on matters of war and peace.
For these larger decisions, there are no licences or certificates. There are no fines or suspensions if things go wrong. Indeed, there is very little direct accountability at all, which is why laypeople understandably fear the influence of experts…