The Wilson Quarterly

A big applause moment during President Barack Obama’s inaugural address came when he promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” As Wilfred M. McClay notes, the phrase, while short on specifics, suggested a change from the previous administration’s stance on “stem-cell research, environmental policy, public health, and the like.” Yet Obama’s administration spent its opening months grappling with “a financial crisis the scope and nature of which almost no professional economist anticipated,” which, McClay points out, very much calls into question the “rightful place of specialized expertise in our politics.”

It is not a new question. Beginning in the late 19th century, the Progressive movement looked to apply the latest objective social research to the ills of the age, and a few decades later, President Franklin Roosevelt called on a “brains trust” to help craft many of his New Deal policies. But, writes McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, “there is also a long and colorful history of fervent resistance” to incorporating “expert” ideas into governance. President Andrew Jackson was “notoriously suspicious of all claims of expertise,” and campaigned hard against a “parasitic class of corrupt civil servants who . . . could make hay out of their monopolistic control of special knowledge.” Jackson’s example, McClay says, “testifies to the fact that democracy itself is necessarily at odds with expertise, and must insist that expertise be accountable to the populace, and to political and social considerations.”

Nonetheless, the latter half of the 19th century saw “bastions of expertise” erected in a number of professions—medical, legal, scientific, and scholarly—offering, so their adherents claimed, “depth of disinterested intellect, rather than the various imperfections of the democratic process.” Ever since, the two camps have existed in uneasy tension, the experts claiming specialized knowledge policed by “self-correcting communities of peer review,” and the body politic affirming the “fundamental competence of every man . . . irrespective of education, social class, or material wealth.” Their coexistence, McClay observes, “never comes without a measure of chronic mutual distrust.”

There are, to be sure, technical areas that require expert guidance—nuclear power, infectious disease, and climate change, to name just a few. But McClay recalls Max Weber’s warning about the “iron cage” of rationalization. Technocrats, Weber argued, would not solve humanity’s problems but would bring about, rather, a world of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” Indeed, McClay believes, too often today difficult issues are “referred to appointed blue-ribbon panels as a way of escaping the heavy lifting of actual politics.”

At the same time, it is an illusion to think that “experts” are free of politics, groupthink, and other flaws. The noted economist Robert J. Shiller, who was an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York until 2004, recently admitted that he kept quiet about his growing misgivings over the housing bubble because he was afraid other economists would ostracize him. If cadres of experts can’t tolerate conflicting ideas, McClay says, their consensus “is soon rendered useless.”

Ultimately, McClay says, it is not just the fault of experts when they fail to foresee all the complexities of the modern world, but ours also, that we rely too much on their judgment. That’s not to suggest that specialists do not have a vital role in a democratic society, but rather that “we need to cultivate a judge’s skill in evaluating them—to be as expert as we can in the evaluation of experts.”

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The Source: "What Do Experts Know?" by Wilfred M. McClay, in National Affairs, Fall 2009. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

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