21 Mar 2017

Diminished Respect For Authority

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Glenn Reynolds points out that when members of today’s establishment class of credentialed experts complain that ordinary Americans commonly reject their scientific consensus on Climate Change, their moral consensus, and their economic and policy consensus, there are reasons that the prestige and authority of the credentialed experts class have dramatically declined within the lifetimes of the Baby Boom generation.

[T]he “experts” don’t have the kind of authority that they possessed in the decade or two following World War II. Back then, the experts had given us vaccines, antibiotics, jet airplanes, nuclear power and space flight. The idea that they might really know best seemed pretty plausible.

But it also seems pretty plausible that Americans might look back on the last 50 years and say, “What have experts done for us lately?” Not only have the experts failed to deliver on the moon bases and flying cars they promised back in the day, but their track record in general is looking a lot spottier than it was in, say, 1965.

It was the experts — characterized in terms of their self-image by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest — who brought us the twin debacles of the Vietnam War, which we lost, and the War On Poverty, where we spent trillions and certainly didn’t win. In both cases, confident assertions by highly credentialed authorities foundered upon reality, at a dramatic cost in blood and treasure. Mostly other people’s blood and treasure.

And these are not isolated failures. The history of government nutritional advice from the 1960s to the present is an appalling one: The advice of “experts” was frequently wrong, and sometimes bought-and-paid-for by special interests, but always delivered with an air of unchallengeable certainty.

In the realm of foreign affairs, which should be of special interest to the people at Foreign Affairs, recent history has been particularly dreadful. Experts failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, failed to deal especially well with that fall when it took place, and then failed to deal with the rise of Islamic terrorism that led to the 9/11 attacks. Post 9/11, experts botched the reconstruction of Iraq, then botched it again with a premature pullout.

On Syria, experts in Barack Obama’s administration produced a policy that led to countless deaths, millions of refugees flooding Europe, a new haven for Islamic terrorists, and the upending of established power relations in the mideast. In Libya, the experts urged a war, waged without the approval of Congress, to topple strongman Moammar Gadhafi, only to see — again — countless deaths, huge numbers of refugees and another haven for Islamist terror.

It was experts who brought us the housing bubble and the subprime crisis. It was experts who botched the Obamacare rollout. And, of course, the experts didn’t see Brexit coming, and seem to have responded mostly with injured pride and assaults on the intelligence of the electorate, rather than with constructive solutions.

By its fruit the tree is known, and the tree of expertise hasn’t been doing well lately. As Nassim Taleb recently observed: “With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers.”

Then there’s the problem that, somehow, over the past half-century or so the educated classes that make up the “expert” demographic seem to have been doing pretty well, even as so many ordinary folks, in America and throughout the West, have seen their fortunes decaying. Is it any surprise that claims to authority in the form of “expertise” don’t carry the same weight that they once did?

If experts want to reclaim a position of authority, they need to make a few changes. First, they should make sure they know what they’re talking about, and they shouldn’t talk about things where their knowledge isn’t solid. Second, they should be appropriately modest in their claims of authority. And, third, they should check their egos. It doesn’t matter what your SAT scores were, voters are under no obligation to listen to you unless they find what you say persuasive.

5 Feedbacks on "Diminished Respect For Authority"

JK Brown

There was a time when the “experts” knew their limitations, or at least they were reminded

The Agriculture of the United Provinces: An Introduction for the Use of Landholders and Officials
By William Harrison Moreland 1904


“The welfare of the cultivator may be affected for good or for evil by the actions of two distinct classes, the officials with whom he has to deal and the landholders (or their subordinates) under whom he holds his land. The two classes have at least one feature in common, that they know very much less of the cultivator’s business than he knows himself. It is true that the observant man may, in the course of time, collect a mass of information on the subject, but the process is in any case slow, the power of independent observation is comparatively rare, and thus it happens that even experienced land agents and officials may do a great deal of harm merely from ignorance and thoughtlessness. The present volume has been compiled with the object of supplying an introduction to the subject which may be of use to all who have to deal with the cultivator, not by saving them the trouble of observing for themselves, but by furnishing them, so to speak, with a framework on which they can arrange the knowledge they acquire.

“The book is divided into parts: the first aims at giving a general account of the subject, while the second gives some details concerning the different agricultural regions of the provinces, and the various crops that are grown. The method of description adopted in the opening chapters call for a word of explanation. Even in England it is not possible to assume that the well-educated man is familiar with the elementary principles of science which explain and justify the empirical art of agriculture : and in India at the present day it is generally safe to assume that a knowledge of the principles of science is altogether wanting. But it is not possible to give even an elementary view of agricultural practice without referring to such subjects as the behaviour of water in soils, the collection and dissipation of nitrogen, and a few other fundamental matters : and it has on the whole seemed the best course to begin the subject by a broad statement of principles, which will be truisms to a reader with scientific training, but must be taken as axioms by those who have not enjoyed that benefit. “

Seattle Sam

You know in my field (economics) the real experts are millions of people making independent decisions, and they manage (absent interference by academics calling themselves experts) to reach advantageous and efficient outcomes.

Seattle Sam

My favorite phrase from the experts is “leveling the playing field”. Whenever you hear that phrase you can be quite sure that the playing field is not going to be level, but tilted to the advantage of whomever the experts deem most worthy.

Dick the Butcher

Seattle Sam: Truth.

Incompetence and arrogance aren’t the only causes of elites’ disasters. Also, there are fear, loathing, and complete disregard for the interests of the little people.

I have no respect for philosophy – making up stuff about stuff; or theology – making up stuff about God.

I may be wrong. I thought that economics was the study how economies work. Now, it seems econ is about imposing ideologies and theories on economies, with no regard to realities.

In the past 103+ years, has the Fed ever done anything that wasn’t a disaster?

The experts thousands of econ PhD’s at the Fed, FHLMC, FNMA, etc. gave us the housing bubble, great recession, slowest post-WWII recovery, etc.


Let us not forget Professor of Economics at MIT, Jonathan Gruber,who gave us the Affordable Care Act,calling us “stupid” over and over. He just came out and said the Republican efforts to fix his bastard child are a “scam”. Well,if anyone can spot a scam,it would be the scam artist.


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