Questionable Authorities

Authority

The good news is that Danish schoolchildren up to and including fourth grade can go back to school beginning Monday, and that Denmark is now conducting about 100,000 “quick tests” per day.

The bad news is that there isn’t any such thing as good news any more.

Here are two articles that were on or near the top of DR’s home page as of late morning Tuesday:

Experts predict long road ahead to more reopenings: “The youngest back in school is actually more daring than what we’ve been seeing”, Theis Lange Olsen, DR.dk, February 2

Experts scratching their heads over our use of quick tests: “It’s very weird”, Theis Lange Olsen, DR.dk, February 2

The subhead of the first story, by the way, is “Older students shouldn’t get their hopes too high, they say.”

The subhead of the second story: “We ought to be getting much more out of our quick tests, they say.”

Journalist Theis Lange Olsen, who wrote both stories, is apparently DR’s new expert correspondent (they say).

As he notes in the first article:

The decision to reopen schools for the youngest was taken after an expert group made a new calculation of the health-related consequences of letting the youngest resume in-school education.

You can see the report of those experts here (it’s a PDF, and it’s obviously in Danish): Re-opening Assessment from Professional Reference Group for COVID-19 National Alert System.

The report examines ten broad areas of the culture that have been shut down (schools, workplaces, bars and restaurants, etc) and is basically a forty-page cost-benefit analysis of re-opening each of those areas. It’s accompanied by seven appendices filling more than eighty additional pages.

You may ask: who is this Professional Reference Group?

You can find the answer in Appendix 2 of the report. It is a panel of fourteen experts: two from the Health Ministry and a dozen from various Danish universities. The PRG also drew on the expertise of four other academics.

That’s sixteen university employees and two civil servants.

The report was prepared at the request of the government, who asked the group to “contribute an evaluation of the order in which it would be wisest to phase out restrictions as the infection situation allows it” and to provide “evaluations of the restrictions’ effect on the reduction of infection as well as consequences for the cultural economy and normal health conditions beyond COVID-19.” Additional knowledge was solicited with respect to the impact of the restrictions on individual well-being, and the group was given leeway to “build upon the reporting from spring 2020 which the economic experts gave in relation to re-opening of the culture.”

So after last week’s revelation that the initial March 2020 lockdown was more or less a unilateral decree, we learn that reopening will be a long and torturous process full of feasibility studies and risk assessments and god knows what else.

So: the government can deprive us of our liberties on a whim, but can only restore them with obsessive caution and prudence.

It can wipe out a multi-billion industry with thousands of employees on a moment’s notice, but will have to get back to you on whether or not you can have a dinner party before Easter. But don’t worry: it has top people working on this. Top. People.

Fourteen professors and a couple of politicians. Who could ask for anything more?


Let’s talk about experts.

I value the expertise of people who’ve accumulated great stores of knowledge in a particular field. I don’t just value it, I treasure it. I respect their knowledge and am grateful for the many ways in which their expertise contributes to making all of our lives better, longer, and more pleasant.

The wonderful thing about most people truly knowledgeable about their field is that they know exactly where the limits of their knowledge lie. They know what they don’t know, and most of them are very honest about the limits of their knowledge.

I had to use “most” twice in the previous paragraph. That’s part of the problem. Of course I have problems with experts speaking out beyond the scope of their expertise, but that’s not a problem with experts, it’s a problem with liars and frauds, which is a more universal category.

My real problem, however, is not the existence of experts, or the wisdom of experts, or even the fraudulence of some “experts,” but the deployment of experts. Specifically, their deployment by politicians and journalists and other public figures using them in wholly inappropriate ways.

Playwright David Mamet had a few choice words on the subject a couple of months ago in the Wall Street Journal (“When the Experts Fail, Everyone Else Pays the Price“):

We are all, in a sense, fools, since no one person can know everything. We all have to trust others for their expertise, and we all make mistakes. The horror of a command economy is not that officials will make mistakes, but that those mistakes will never be acknowledged or corrected.

Just so.

Even in glorious, incorruptible Denmark, there’s a price to be paid when policy decisions are decoupled from consequences.

I continue to believe that in democratic nations we should be forgiving of political leaders acting in good faith during this pandemic. They will inevitably make mistakes here and there, but they and their parties will be held accountable by their electorates eventually.

But our experts, our precious experts, when and how are they held to account? They’re not. And because they’re not, they don’t have skin in the game the way our elected representatives do. And people without skin in the game have a much looser style of play.

I don’t think that’s what we want right now.

Children are being damaged by these lockdowns. We’re all being damaged. In an effort to slow the spread of a virus that’s primarily killing people who have already lived beyond average life expectancy, we’re destroying children, damaging adults, driving businesses into ruin, killing jobs, and debilitating whole economies.


I want you to imagine a big and complicated machine, entirely mechanical. A massive assembly of gears and rollers and pistons and plates and wheels and flanges and whatever else your imagination feels like throwing at some rust-colored, nineteenth-century industrial machine.

I want you to imagine it working beautifully, perfectly.

Now let’s imagine Socrates waddling over to admire the machine along with us.

“What is the function of that sprocket?” he asks, pointing.

Fortunately there’s an engineer among us, and he answers on our behalf:

“The purpose of the sprocket is the turning of that chain.”

Socrates nods in approval.

“And the chain?”

“The driving of that chain is necessary to turn that shaft,” the engineer explains.

Socrates nods again.

“Could we switch things around so the sprocket turns the shaft to turn the chain?” he asks.

“Are you daft?” asks the engineer.

Socrates ignores the insult.

“What is the purpose of this machine?” he asks.

“It removes the pits from olives,” the engineer explains.

Socrates nods again. Then he furrows his brow and points to the sprocket that had originally caught his eye.

“So that’s an olive-pit-removing sprocket?” he asks.

We all stare blankly back at the crazy old coot.

“I mean,” he says, “is that sprocket dedicated to the removal of olive pits?”

The engineer laughs out loud.

“The sprocket is a part, old man. It has its function, it’s an important part, the machine wouldn’t work without it, but its only purpose, as I already told you, is to turn the chain.”

“But surely I couldn’t take that same sprocket and use it in a machine whose purpose was, say, the crushing of grapes?”

The engineer laughs again.

“Of course you could,” he says, “assuming that machine had a chain of the same size that needed to be turned. The purpose of any sprocket is the turning of a chain, period.”

“What!” Socrates exclaims, “Are you saying there’s no difference between an olive-pit removing chain and a grape-crushing chain? What madness is this!”

The engineer, who was never very bright and wouldn’t know a setup if it bit him in the ass, shakes his head.

“The parts are interchangeable,” he says. “It’s not the parts that matter, it’s how the various parts work together, each of them doing just the one thing it’s designed to do, to perform a larger function together.”

“PRECISELY!” Socrates roars.

And with that he waddles out of our imaginary scene, which therefore ends.


Experts are like sprockets. The machinery of our world doesn’t work without them, but the machinery falls apart if we start using chains where we ought to use sprockets, and shafts where we need chains.

And that’s why health experts need to stay out of economics, and economists out of health care, and climate scientists out of politics, and politicians out of as much as we can possibly keep them out of.

You wouldn’t expect a prominent brain surgeon to have any special wisdom on how to unclog your kitchen sink. If your car won’t start, you don’t call a pharmacist to come by and have a look under the hood. And if you’re feeling dizzy and experiencing chest pains, you don’t make an emergency call to the gender studies department of the local university.

Knowledge in one field doesn’t translate to knowledge in others, any more than a sprocket’s indisputable value in a given machine means it can be used for other functions in the same machine. We all know this. But we don’t always remember that we know this.

Sometimes people are trotted out as experts when they’re no such thing (and are therefore “experts” rather than experts).

And sometimes genuine experts are deployed as though their expertise in one field somehow granted them some kind of universal expertise. (“And here’s some more important political insight from NBA hall-of-famer…”)

In recent years we’ve seen examples of both problems most often with respect to the climate and the pandemic. Experts within very narrow fields of study are presented and treated as though their detailed knowledge of a particular branch of human knowledge somehow grants them expertise on every field of human endeavor. Scientists who’ve spent their entire lives studying molecular biology are thereby expected to offer valuable insights on public policy or economics—while trained economists are asked for guidance on issues relating to public health or climate science.

We’re still the midst of a global pandemic. We certainly need to hear from, and listen to, experts: immunologists, virologists, microbiologists, public health experts… But we only need to hear about immunology from the immunologists, and only about virology from the virologists, and so on. We don’t need to hear microbiologists’ opinions on public policy or social issues, any more than we need to hear sociologists’ opinion’s on virology or Greta Thunberg’s opinion on anything.

But that’s what we’re getting. In too many cases, from the left and the right, we’re getting beliefs and opinions where all we need is knowledge.

And we need that knowledge to be able to make sensible decisions for ourselves.

And we need governments to remember that those decisions are ours to make.


That much said, it sure would be nice to be able to pull out a real expert whenever we really needed one…

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