Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Expert Advice

“Sorry, Only Seeing This Now…” Government Finally Text NPHET Back After Recommending Level 5 Restrictions 2 Weeks Ago
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper web site Waterford Whispers, October 19
If you watched the original Star Trek series when you were a kid, as I did, then you may have wondered, as I did, why Mr. Spock was not the ship’s captain instead of James T. Kirk.

Spock was invariably cool, calm and in total control of his emotions. He was a brilliant scientist—in fact he was the Enterprise’s science officer—and a rigorous practitioner of logic. While Kirk was frequently distracted by some bit of intergalactic skirt or otherwise being led by his emotions, Spock was completely dedicated to his work and mission. Whenever Kirk had to absent himself and would tell Spock to “take the com,” things always seemed to run much more efficiently, and the leadership decisions were more consistent and clear.

There is an obvious reason why Kirk was the captain and not Spock. It made for better stories. Efficiently run organizations are not inherently watchable from an entertainment point of view. The show’s writers did actually come up with a justification for the Enterprise’s command structure. In the sixteenth episode of the first season (“The Galileo Seven”), Mr. Spock is in a position of command on an away mission. After an emergency landing on the planet Taurus II, Spock’s manner annoys and frustrates his subordinates no end. A desperate attempt is made to escape the planet, but the shuttle cannot escape the planet’s gravity. In an apparent act of desperation, Spock dumps the craft’s precious remaining fuel and ignites it. This seems pointless and foolhardy, but the flare is spotted by the Enterprise crew, which is then able to save the shuttle passengers by transporter beam in the few remaining seconds.

Kirk—and perhaps the writers—think Spock has learned a lesson in leadership because he acted emotionally rather than logically, but wasn’t Spock’s desperate act actually logical? After all, it succeeded. In a last-ditch situation, trying anything, even with near-zero probability of success, is surely more logical than doing nothing. Still, Kirk’s larger point stands. Leadership is more than just technical expertise.

In times when people get frustrated with their political leaders, you often hear voices arguing that governmental decisions should be made by technocrats or “experts” rather than individuals whose strongest ability is climbing to the top of the political ladder. You particularly hear this nowadays as countries struggle with a long-term emergency medical situation. President Trump has been roundly criticized for being dismissive of Anthony Fauci, a lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and other medical advisers. Joe Biden, who looks likely to replace Trump in January, says repeatedly that, as president, he would “follow medical experts’ advice.”

For months Irish politicians smugly compared themselves to Trump and congratulated themselves on following the experts. The self-congratulation stopped abruptly four Sundays ago when the press learned that the country’s chief medical officer, on behalf of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), had written the government advising that the Republic of Ireland move to Level 5, i.e. the most restrictive set of measures currently available. The following evening, in a television interview, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Leo Varadkar defended the government’s decision to go to a lower-than-recommended level of restrictions, saying the medical advice had come “out of the blue” and was “not thought through.” Sixteen days later, under continuing media criticism and deteriorating case numbers, the government went to Level 5.

In his original defense of the government’s hesitation to tighten restrictions, Varadkar pointed out that the government must take into account all manner of economic and social repercussions, while the medical experts’ brief is limited to the spread of the virus. They have the luxury, if you want to call it that, to strive for minimal risk in their recommendations. The government faces serious risk no matter what it decides. The government’s defenders declared that, while NPHET should be heeded, it is not the government.

One of the strongest arguments I have read for not turning experts into autocrats comes not from some right-wing sheet but from an article two years ago in the left-of-center Guardian. In the piece David Runciman of Cambridge University argued against “epistocracy: the rule of the knowers.” It is a detailed and thoughtful article and well worth reading. Here is the nub of his argument:
Epistocracy is flawed because of the second part of the word rather than the first—this is about power (kratos) as much as it is about knowledge (episteme). Fixing power to knowledge risks creating a monster that can’t be deflected from its course, even when it goes wrong—which it will, since no one and nothing is infallible. Not knowing the right answer is a great defence against people who believe that their knowledge makes them superior.
The nature of science is exemplified by experimentation, debate, revision and skepticism. Ironically, many people, usually not scientists themselves, invoke Science as some immutable ultimate authority, not unlike the way religious fundamentalists would try to shut down arguments by invoking the Old Testament.

Such people would have you believe that there is near-unanimity among scientists on a range of critical issues. Worse, they seem at times to believe the anointed experts are infallible. Certainly, following the prevailing scientific opinion in a crisis is the smart thing to do, but it should never be treated uncritically as received truth. Unanimity of opinion is the virtual antithesis of science. You only have to read the October 4 Great Barrington Declaration by professors from Stanford, Harvard and Oxford or a recent letter to the Irish government signed by fifteen doctors, including those on the frontlines, to realize that there is a healthy debate going on about the best way to deal with pandemic.

By all means, you want Mr. Spock on the ship’s deck for his technical expertise and his advice. The captain, though, will want to hear from him and other crew members and then draw upon his or her own judgment before heading out into the great unknown.

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