I do not like politics of fear. I do not like making policies based on fear. I do not like using fear to play with people’s emotions. But, I am afraid. Genuinely afraid. I see a willful erosion of expertise in this country, and I fear the consequences will be worse than we can imagine. This is not a new feeling, but the removal of Brennan’s security clearance made it especially salient this morning. I recognize that this is a punitive act, and not directed at his expertise, but it’s all part of a bigger problem from my perspective.
Yesterday afternoon, Sarah Sanders read a statement from the president revoking John Brennan’s security clearance. This is a very unusual move by an administration. Although it’s true that Brennan has been an outspoken critic of President Trump, that has not been grounds for revoking security clearance in the past. Michael Flynn, for instance, retained his security clearance after being fired by the Obama administration (officially resigned, but “fired” seems more accurate), and retained this clearance even after attacking Obama and leading “lock her up” chants against Clinton, even after being called out for “violation of the ethos and professionalism of apolitical military service.” Revoking security clearance for being openly critical of an administration is simply not in the cards.
Why does this have me worried about experts? Because I see it as all part of a bigger problem: that many Americans have spent decades whittling away the importance of experts. Trump has diminished expertise, and promoted himself to the expert ranks many times in his path. Recall the spring of 2016, when asked who his military experts are, he responded, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” This from a man who has never served in the military. Of course, people can become experts at things they have not done, but there is an arrogance in elevating yourself to expert status without any justification for that promotion.
It’s not just Trump, but Trump’s dismissal of expertise is only allowed because it’s become pervasive in today’s America. Perhaps this isn’t new. We’ve bought snake oil from frauds before. Maybe it’s the smaller world, created by impressive developments in communication and social media, that makes it feel more common. It nevertheless feels pervasive. The “Food Babe,” Vani Hari is seen by many as an expert in nutrition, and her opinions are held as truth by many, despite the many rebuttals from established experts in food science. And this is part of a much broader issue. As science tells us more about the world, and as the mystery of the world (that was where many pointed to God), the world becomes more understandable to those with the training to understand it, but more frightening to those who cannot understand or grasp the new knowledge. Religion, and flawed views of God, have played a role as well. Indeed, the history of religion is littered with mystery being evidence for God. The universe is so big that we can’t understand it, so let’s just say it’s God. A sick child feels better in the morning before we understand circadian cycles of anti-inflammatory glucocorticoids, so we just say that God intervened. But as the gaps close, as we learn more, the God who we stuffed into these places has no room left to live.
I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God, but I appreciate religion and I am capable of empathy, so I can imagine the comfort that others feel in God, and I cannot deny the importance of religion in our society, and in our humanity. I like when people put a lot of thought into religion. I enjoy reading and thinking about different views of God. With respect to what I’m focusing on here, the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are perfect. Bonhoeffer is perhaps most famous for being a strong force of German resistance to Hitler. He was imprisoned, and eventually hanged, for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. I’m particularly moved by his writings on God of the gaps and his passionate defense of God in the face of the God of the gaps views. He talks about the God in the gaps as if it’s using God as a “stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge” and how wrong this is. He wrote, “God is no stopgap; he must be recognized at the center of our life, not when we are at the end of our resources.” In talking about using God as a stopgap, confining God to the things we don’t understand, he wrote, “It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some place for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in the weakness but in strength.” And, probably my favorite phrasing, “I therefore want to start from the premise that God should not be smuggled into some last secret place.” Smuggled into some last secret place . . . brilliant prose. I can’t get enough of that.
But years of treating God as a stopgap for the incompleteness of knowledge has led to a place where new knowledge, and less incompleteness, means less room for God. So people are forced to choose: God or science. This is a really unfortunate choice, and one that we should never force people to make, and one that people shouldn’t have to make. But, when forced with that (false) choice, many make a real choice, and reject the knowledge to hold on to God. And in doing so, they become skilled at rejecting expertise, making it easier to do so on other topics. Interestingly enough, I’ve often wondered if part of the problem with religion and these views stems from a lack of expertise within religion. I am not an expert in religion, and this could be way off base, but my naive (and possibly wrong) view is that there is a wide diversity in the amount of formal training needed to become a leader in a Christian Church. Jesuit priests go through long-term and rigorous training, but pastors of small rural Churches often have no formal training at all. And which is more likely to preach from a God of the Gaps perspective? This is not to say that one is more holy, but perhaps one spent less time reinventing the wheel and instead learned from the intellectual history of those who went before them. The Jesuits I know and have known have an amazingly strong faith, I think partly because they are constantly challenging their beliefs and studying alternatives. Other groups, especially evangelical groups, seem to be reluctant to challenge beliefs, seemingly out of fear that they are rejecting God by even questioning stuff. The lack of formal training, the lack of expertise, creates an authority figure who does not have the basis for that authority.
When it comes to science, we see a lot of the same. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “you have your experts and I have mine,” in a discussion about politics, vaccines, economics, climate science, you name it. But here’s the problem, in bold for emphasis: We should not pick “our” experts based on their views. If our goal is to understand something, going in with a preconceived view and finding experts who fit that, it a recipe for failure. Sure, if I want to find people who believe the earth is 6,000 years old, I can find them, thanks to the internet. I can call these people experts, but what makes them experts?
Let’s make this more simple. Imagine that I want to know if the wavelength of red light is ~700 nm or ~450 nm. Let’s think about two ways to answer this question. Of course there are more ways than these two, but let’s, for the sake of this discussion, imagine that these are our only two choices:
- Before me are two people. One has a doctorate in optical science and has published more than a hundred papers on optics and how variations in optics can change color perception. Another has an undergraduate degree in physics, but since graduating, has worked for a consulting firm with a specialization in marketing for photography companies. To get the answer I want, I select the one of these two who I believe is most qualified to give me the correct answer, and I, therefore, most likely pick the first person over the second, even though there’s some reason to believe they both should know the answer.
- Before me are two people, I do not know much about their background, but one tells me that the wavelength of red light is ~450 nm, and the other says that the wavelength of red light is ~700 nm. For some reason, it’s important for me that red light has a wavelength of ~450 nm, so I go with the one who says that.
Which one is more likely to give us a correct answer to the question at hand? It seems silly when we do that with this example, because it’s so clear. But somehow it never seems silly when it comes to things like climate change. When people say, “I have my experts and you have yours,” I often wonder if they know anything about “their” experts other than the position the expert has taken on an issue.
Scientists are not completely undeserving of blame here. Conclusions drawn from scientific experiments are wrong, ofte. The New Scientist ran a series called “Rewriting the Textbooks” that featured major discoveries that upended what we used to think about things. One week a study comes out that says something is good for us, and the next week it’s bad for us. It makes it easy to see why people can easily dismiss the words of scientists. But, what’s important is to think about why and when we’re doing this. As a scientist, I’m also comfortable putting some of that blame on bad media coverage of science, but the best part about science (for me) is that it is self-correcting. The conclusion will not always be right. In fact, it will often be wrong. But we get more information and with that information, we change the conclusion, each time getting closer and closer to whatever the truth may be.
Cause and blame aside, this is a problem, and I do not have a solution. I’m guilty here too. I spout off about all kinds of things, with no formal training. In my defense, I’m most often spouting off about things that are matters of opinion. In that sense, expertise is less important. My opinion is that dark chocolate tastes better than milk chocolate. I do not need an expert to make that statement, and an expert saying that s/he likes milk chocolate better than dark chocolate should not require that I change my opinion. That said, the expert may explain why it is better for me to eat milk chocolate, for some factual reason, and that can change which I pick, but that’s different from having a preference for the tastes.
So let’s think about this as we discuss, debate, and form conclusions. Did we rely on expertise, or did we find an expert who supported what we thought already? If it’s the latter, maybe we should try the former.