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February 1, 2010

a critique of expertise, part 1

We need expertise to make wise public decisions. You wouldn't ask just any fellow citizen to operate on your heart; you would find the best-trained and most experienced cardiologist. In the same way, if you want to fix public schools or the justice system, you need economists, psychologists, criminologists, and other experts to advise and perhaps decide.

Everyone finds some merit in this argument, but it can be grossly exaggerated. For example, my friend Harry Boyte often quotes a speech by Donna Shalala that can be found in full here. Shalala was president of the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s and went on to eight years as Secretary of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton. She epitomized the policy expert who attains public influence. In her 1989 speech, she began by citing scientific discoveries that had "improved human life, prolonged human life, enriched and protected human life. The great plagues are basically behind us," she said, thanks to "scientific research done under the sheltering arms of research universities." She went on to defend the "idea of a distinterested technocratic elite" that arrived in America before 1900 and shaped both the modern research university and government:

Shalala ended her speech with a call for the university's experts to take on the pressing challenges of the late twentieth century, especially persistent poverty and educational failure, with "grand strategies" grounded in apolitical social science. Four years later, she was running a huge federal agency responsible for health care. The administration she served devised a complex health reform bill, described as the work of a "distinterested technocratic elite." It was quickly defeated; the major trends in public health remained basically unaffected.

When Donna Shalala was studying for her doctorate in public affairs during the 1960s, the "moon-ghetto" metaphor was popular. This was the idea that engineers and other specialists had put human beings on the moon (and brought them safely home), so it should be possible to tackle the problems of the so-called "ghetto" in much the same way. It was all a matter of scientifically diagnosing the causes of poverty and efficiently deploying solutions.

Actually, the moon and the "ghetto" are very different. The moon is almost perfectly detached from all other human issues and contexts, because it is almost 240,000 miles away from our planet (although NASA's launch facilities in Florida and Houston might have some local impact). The goal of the Apollo Program--whether you endorse it or not--was clear and easily defined. The challenges were physical; thus Newtonian physics allowed engineers to predict the impact of their tools precisely in advance. The costs were also calculable--in fact, the Apollo Program was completed under budget. The astronauts and other participants were highly motivated volunteers, who had signed up for a fully developed concept that they understood in advance. The president and other national leaders had committed enough funds to make the Apollo Program a success, because its value to them exceeded the costs.

In contrast, a low-income urban neighborhood is enmeshed with other communities. Its challenges are multi-dimensional. Its strengths and weaknesses are open to debate. Defining success is a matter of values; even how to measure the basic facts is controversial. (For example, how should "race" be defined in a survey? What are the borders of a neighborhood?) Everyone involved--from the smallest child on the block to the most powerful official downtown--has distinct interests and motivations. Outsiders may not care enough to provide adequate funds, and residents may prefer to leave than to make their area better. When social scientists and policymakers implement rewards or punishments to affect people's behavior, the targets tend to realize what is happening and develop strategies to resist, subvert, or profit from the policies--a response that machines never manage. No wonder we could put a man on the moon but our poor urban neighborhoods persist.

Thanks to personal computers, spreadsheets, and the World Wide Web, the resources and skills necessary to analyze social data have fallen by orders of magnitude since Donna Shalala was first trained in social science. Now anyone with a computer and basic knowledge of statistics can copy columns of numbers from official websites and look for correlations or more complex statistical relationships. Yet, if anything, we feel less confident about our ability to diagnose and cure social problems than we did in 1970. Shalala's "grand strategies" have receded from view.

Although I acknowledge the value of expertise, we can identify several important general reasons why it is never enough and we always need citizens' participation to tackle social problems.

First, professions cannot be trusted to make decisions for the public, even when their tools and techniques are appropriate and effective. Professionals are human, and if people outside their group turn to them for guidance but do not closely scrutinize their work, they are sure to become lazy, biased, careless, or even corrupt. In 1913, George Bernard Shaw wrote about the reluctance of doctors to testify against one another in malpractice suits. "The effect of this state of things is to make the medical profession a conspiracy to hide its own shortcomings. No doubt the same may be said of all professions. They are all conspiracies against the laity." I think Shaw was joking, but there was a kernel of truth in his aphorism. Unless professionals are forced to justify their methods, assumptions, and conclusions in frequent, detailed, open discussions with laypeople, corruption is inevitable.

Second, social issues involve inescapable questions of value. It is not enough to know that A causes B. An engineer, an economist, or a biochemist might tell us that with some reliability. But we must also know whether B is desirable, whether A is an ethically acceptable means to B, and whether the cost is worthwhile. For example, you can often cause a low-income neighborhood to vanish by building a mass-transit station that links it to the downtown business core. Rents will rise around the station and poor people will move out. Crime will fall and investment will follow. Whether those changes count as "success" depends on your values, not on the data alone.

Third, experts are trained to think in terms of categories: to classify situations and then to recommend the rules, methods, solutions, or "best practices" that apply to each classification. There is value to thinking in categories, and experts do it better within their own fields than other people do. However, there are also serious limitations to categorical thinking, and laypeople often see a particular situation better than experts do. I believe this point has great significance for how we arrange our politics and will develop it tomorrow.

February 1, 2010 11:04 AM | category: populism | Comments



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