The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Why Don’t We Trust the ‘Experts’?

Posted on | May 18, 2022 | Comments Off on Why Don’t We Trust the ‘Experts’?

One of the great fools of our age, Tom Nichols, published a book a few years ago with the title, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, about which I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Publishers Weekly said that “The crux of the book’s argument is that… the American public have grown increasingly hostile to expertise” and described The Death of Expertise as a “highly researched and impassioned book that’s well timed”, further noting that “Generally, Nichols displays strong reasoning, but at times he goes off the rails. It takes some time [in some sections] for him to make his point”.
Kirkus Reviews described The Death of Expertise as “A sharp analysis of an increasingly pressing problem”, although Nichols (who “sounds less like an alarmist than like a genial guide through the wilderness of ignorance”) fails to propose a satisfying solution. Andrew Joseph Pegoda disagreed on the last point, writing that The Death of Expertise “does what good books do… and provides some possible solutions”. Pegoda also described The Death of Expertise as “extremely interesting, important, and timely” and said that “Nichols, in short, provides a brief History, informed by psychology and political science, of what he argues is a new phenomenon whereby people in the United States are not just regularly wrong or ignorant but ‘proud of not knowing things’“.

Now, I will be generous enough to stipulate that Nichols has a point, namely that we live in an age when it is common for people to overestimate their own abilities and knowledge. Some people believe that, because they can do a Google search about a topic, this puts them on the same level of expertise as a genuine expert.

Such pseudo-expertise, as we might call it, explains why every journalist with a blue-check Twitter account suddenly became an expert in epidemiology as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, then just as suddenly became an expert in Eastern European affairs the moment Russia invaded Ukraine. If tomorrow the Earth were invaded by aliens from another planet, the same Twitter know-it-alls would instantly begin offering their opinions as experts in the field of extraterrestrial life.

This kind of fake expertise can have serious consequences. The loud clamor of voices demanding a maximum lockdown response to COVID-19 resulted in devastating harms that, in hindsight, were entirely unnecessary. Especially in terms of school closures, the evidence is now clear that (a) children were never a high-risk group for the disease, and (b) keeping schools closed for months produced enormous educational losses. Compare the per-capita COVID-19 death rate in maximum-lockdown states like New York (3,554 deaths per million population) and Michigan (3,619) to Florida, which re-opened in May 2020, with death rate significantly lower (3,457). The states that imposed onerous restrictions and kept them in place for months on end didn’t really save lives, yet the advocates of lockdown policies claimed that The Science™ was on their side,  so that if you questioned their policies, you were accused of being “anti-science.” The Science™ turned out to be a cult, and Doctor Fauci was the High Priest of that cult. The fact that Fauci had impressive credentials as a genuine expert makes the failure of The Science™ all the more devastating, and yet so powerful is the cult mentality that his followers won’t even admit they were misled.

Believe it or not, there are still people walking around wearing cloth masks, believing that this protects them against infection despite all evidence to the contrary. My daughter flew back from college this week, and when I went to pick her up, I was astonished by the number of people wearing masks in the airport. While the airlines may require masks while you’re on the plane, there is no such requirement in the airport, and if you didn’t catch COVID-19 while you were encased in a pressurized cabin with 200 other passengers, why would you imagine you were at risk just walking through the airport? But cloth masks simply don’t work, in terms of protecting against the virus, no matter what the cult of The Science™ would like you to believe. Alas, I have digressed . . .

The case of Anthony Fauci and COVID-19 illustrates my point that what Nichols calls The Death of Expertise is mostly a case of suicide — that is to say, the “experts” have discredited themselves, on issue after issue, in controversy after controversy, so that if people no long trust the “experts,” it is the experts, not the people, who are to blame.

Notice that, in the subtitle of his book, Nichols asserts that someone — who? — is waging a Campaign Against Established Knowledge:

A  kind of intellectual Gresham’s Law is gathering momentum: where once the rule was “bad money drives out good,” we now live in an age where misinformation pushes aside knowledge. This is a very bad thing. A modern society cannot function without a social division of labor and a reliance on experts, professionals, and intellectuals. (For the moment, I will use these three words interchangeably.) No one is an expert on everything. No matter what our aspirations, we are bound by the reality of time and the undeniable limits of our talent. We prosper because we specialize, and because we develop both formal and informal mechanisms and practices that allow us to trust each other in those specializations.

The essential problem with this argument is that it is un-American.

America was established by pilgrims, pioneers and frontiersman who, having left behind the civilization of Europe, created a new civilization by their own labors. The pioneer in his remote cabin in the wilderness had no “experts” to tell him how to do whatever it was he needed to do to survive. Thus, he had to be self-reliant, operating on a trial-and-error basis or else trusting in traditional methods — knowledge passed down from preceding generations — just to be able to support himself and his family amid challenging circumstances. It is from this pioneer heritage that the American spirit of “rugged individualism” emerged, and this is the spirit which Nichols denounces as “a very bad thing,” a threat to “modern society.” Americans like to do things for themselves, rather than waiting for some “expert” to tell them how to do it, and you sure as hell don’t expect Americans to seek permission from “experts” to form their own opinions of matters. This is the real heart of what Nichols is up to, in bemoaning public hostility to “experts.” It’s not so much about knowledge as it is about opinions. Tom Nichols was of the opinion that Hillary Clinton should be elected president, and he became angry because enough of us disagreed that Donald Trump got elected instead.

That’s the real bottom line for the whole #NeverTrump crowd — from the moment Trump rode down the escalator in June 2015, these “mainstream” Republicans decided he should not be president, and set about trying to prevent him from getting the GOP nomination. The first problem was, the #NeverTrump crowd was unable to coalesce around an alternative early enough to turn the primaries into a two-man race. The second problem was, Trump attracted to his campaign a legion of supporters who had never voted in a Republican primary. So while the anti-Trump votes in the primaries were divided up between a bunch of other rivals — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, et al. — Trump kept stacking up delegates. But having invested their egos in the #NeverTrump jihad, his critics in the pundit class (the whole Bulwark crew, the Lincoln Project crowd, Max Boot, etc.) could not accept defeat, and instead doubled-down, becoming de facto Democratic Party operatives, whether they were willing to admit it or not. And what they were most angry about was that stupid voters got to decide the election, thus violating the “social division of labor” whereby pundits like Tom Nichols get to decide who is elected president.

You see what I mean in calling this “un-American”? The pundits who claim they’re trying to save “Our Democracy” don’t really believe in democracy at all. But again I digress . . .

What got me thinking about the crisis of the expert class wasn’t presidential politics or the COVID-19 pandemic. No, it was football.

In case you never read my blog before, I’m a born-and-bred University of Alabama fan and, when the New England Patriots drafted our quarterback Mac Jones in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, I instantly became a Patriots fan. In doing so, I found a new class of experts to hate — the commentators, columnists and TV analysts who get paid to talk about the NFL. Some of these guys are actually OK, like Evan Lazar, who can analyze video with an astonishing level of insight. Some of them, on the other hand, are utterly evil. No, I’m sorry, let me restate that — one of them is utterly evil, namely Nick Wright of Fox Sports, a Kansas City Chiefs fan masquerading as a neutral commentator.

None of the other NFL pundits are pure evil like Nick Wright, but there is a notable bandwagon effect among these alleged football experts. Today I was checking ESPN’s site on my phone and noticed an emerging consensus that the Buffalo Bills are the team to beat in 2022.

This is not an unreasonable expectation. The Bills have an excellent quarterback, Josh Allen, and a tough defense. They have won the AFC East division two years in a row, made it all the way to the AFC championship game two years ago, and this past season lost a divisional playoff to the Kansas City Chiefs in an overtime thriller. It is thus a reasonable guess that Buffalo will be among the top contenders when the NFL season kicks off this fall. But (a) the Bills have never won a Super Bowl and (b) they haven’t been to a Super Bowl since the early 1990s.

If you say I am prejudiced against the Bills, I won’t deny it because, of course, they’re the rivals of my Patriots in the AFC East. But I daresay there may be elements of prejudice in the consensus of pundits who think Buffalo can make it to the next Super Bowl. One of the reasons the pundits like the Bills so much is because Josh Allen is one of those “mobile, athletic” quarterbacks who play the kind of run-and-gun “schoolyard” football that all the TV commentators love. The pundits seem to agree that this style of play is the future of football, and more traditional drop-back passers are dinosaurs on their way to extinction. As much as fans might enjoy the run-and-gun style — and that shootout between Allen and Patrick Mahomes in the divisional playoffs was one of the most exciting spectacles in NFL history — there are downsides to relying on the “mobile, athletic” quarterback. Typically, they don’t last very long in the NFL, where all it takes is one hard tackle to wreck your knee or ankle and there goes your precious “mobility.” Last year Josh Allen was the second-leading rusher for the Bills, with 763 yards on 122 carries, but how much longer can he keep that up? Trust me, as a Patriots fan, it was agonizing to watch New England’s defense try to catch Allen, who ran for 66 yards in the Wild Card playoff game. Sooner or later, though, Allen’s going to get wrecked. He cannot defy the probabilities forever — or at least, that’s my view, as an unapologetic fan of the Patriots and their old-fashioned quarterback Mac Jones.

My opinion, however, is that of a fan, not an expert. And what is the track record of these professional NFL pundits? Well, I decided to check. Last year, in their season preview, CBS Sports had seven of its personalities — Jason La Canfora, Pete Brisco, Will Brinson, Ryan Wilson, John Breech, Jared Dubin and Jonathan Jones — predict (a) the exact order of finish in each of the eight divisions of the NFL, (b) the six teams to get Wild Card playoff berths, (c) the teams that would make it to the Super Bowl, and (d) who would win the championship.

How many of these experts correctly predicted the Super Bowl winner?

Zero. The number is zero.

Still, some of them were close. Two of them (La Canfora and Wilson) correctly predicted that the Los Angeles Rams would win the NFC West division, and four others (Prisco, Brinson, Breech and Jones) had the Rams making it to the playoffs as a Wild Card. So six of the seven experts at least correctly predicted that the Rams would be in the playoffs, and two of those (Dubin and Jones) actually picked the Rams to win the NFC championship. But none of them — zero — figured that Coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matt Stafford would take L.A. all the way to victory in the Super Bowl. Two of the experts (La Canfora and Prisco) had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returning to the Super Bowl as NFC champions, and La Canfora thought the Bucs would win it all. Wilson and Breech expected the Green Bay Packers to win the NFC title, with Breech predicting that Green Bay would win the Super Bowl. Brinson thought the San Francisco 49ers would be Super Bowl champs. In fact, the Buccaneers lost to the Rams in the divisional playoff, the Packers were beaten by San Francisco in the other NFC divisional playoff, and the Rams beat the Niners in the NFC championship game.

So while none of these experts correctly predicted the Rams as Super Bowl winners, they at least were fairly accurate in predicting the teams (Green Bay, Tampa Bay, San Francisco and L.A.) that in fact proved to be the main contenders for the NFC title. As for the AFC, however . . .

Oh, my goodness gracious!

Five of the CBS Sports experts (La Canfora, Prisco, Brinson, Wilson and Breech) predicted the Buffalo Bills would take the AFC championship, with Prisco and Wilson picking Buffalo to win the Super Bowl. As previously explained, the Bills lost a divisional playoff and thus didn’t make it to the AFC title game, much less win it. The team that beat Buffalo, the Kansas City Chiefs were picked by Dubin and Jones not only to win the AFC championship, but also to win the Super Bowl.

Well, at least the Chiefs made it to the AFC title game, but they were defeated there by Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Guess how many of the CBS experts predicted that the Bengals would be in the playoffs? The number is — you guessed, didn’t you? — zero.

All seven of the CBS Sports experts picked the Bengals to finish fourth — i.e., last place — in the AFC North division. Five of the experts (La Canfora, Prisco, Wilson, Dubin and Jones) predicted that the Cleveland Browns would win the AFC North. In fact, the Browns went 8-9 and finished third in the division. Brinson picked the Baltimore Ravens to win the AFC North, but they also went 8-9 and, because of tiebreakers, placed fourth in the division. Breech was the least wrong of the experts in terms of predicting the AFC North winner, as his pick was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who finished second and lost a Wild Card playoff to the Chiefs.

How was it that nobody — not a single one of these CBS Sports experts — thought the Bengals were a playoff contender? How was it that the eventual AFC champions were a unanimous choice by these experts to finish dead last in their division? To give credit where credit is due, all seven experts correctly predicted the winners of the three other AFC divisions (Bills in the East, Chiefs in the West, Tennessee Titans in the South), and all of them also got the exact order of finish correct in the East (Bills, Patriots, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets). Breech correctly picked the final order of finish in the AFC South (Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars). Nobody got the order of finish correct in the AFC West, however, because the Las Vegas Raiders (whom the experts predicted to finish third or fourth) ended up in second place. Prisco picked the Denver Broncos to finish second in the AFC West; in fact, the Broncos at 7-10 were last in the division. The other experts predicted the L.A. Chargers would finish second in the AFC West, but they were third. Of the many wrong predictions about who would get the AFC Wild Card playoff berths, La Canfora, Wilson, Dubin and Jones incorrectly picked the Chargers and Ravens for two of the three slots. Brinson and Breech wrongly predicted the Chargers and Browns. Prisco got two of the three Wild Cards correct, missing only with his pick of the Broncos. All seven correctly predicted that the Patriots would win a wild card bid. But none of them — zero — picked the Bengals.

Generally speaking, these experts produced a carnival of wrongness. Yes, they got some things right — the easy stuff, like figuring that the Chiefs, Bills, Packers and Buccaneers would be playoff contenders. But even though all of them predicted the Rams would be in the playoff hunt, only two thought the Rams would make it all the way to the Super Bowl, and none of them thought McVay’s team would win the Super Bowl. As for their AFC predictions, everything got completely wrecked for the experts by Cincinnati and their second-year quarterback Burrow.

It’s easy to see why the Bengals were underrated. Nobody anticipated what the reunion of Burrow and his LSU teammate, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, would mean for Cincinnati. Burrow and the rookie Chase connected on 81 passes for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. For the season, Burrow completed 70.4% of his passes for 4,611 yards and 34 TDs. This was a remarkable improvement from Burrow’s rookie year and — just incidentally — Burrow isn’t one of those run-and-gun quarterbacks that NFL commentators rave about. Neither is the Rams QB, Stafford. Both of them are old-fashioned dropback passers, and so the bandwagon effect among the CBS Sports experts (who thought Mahomes and the Chiefs or Allen and the Bills would win the AFC) is readily apparent as a source of their total wrongness about the Super Bowl.

What does this say about Tom Nichols or Anthony Fauci? Not much, directly. But indirectly, the wrongness of the CBS Sports “experts” does illustrate the general credibility problem of our media-certified expert class. Once upon a time, wrong predictions would be forgotten because, despite the durability of the printed word, few people could be bothered to go to the library and do the research necessary to find who had predicted what. Thanks to near-universal computer access, however, anyone can now do this kind of research and publish it on the Internet.

Bad news for the experts — the Internet never forgets.



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