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Listening to experts isn't perfect, but ignoring them is far worse

Listening to experts isn't perfect, but ignoring them is far worse
© MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE said of his opponent, Vice President Biden, "he'll listen to the scientists." In case you’re confused, this was meant to be an insult.

Indeed, the president seems to take pride in the extent to which he has ignored the advice of experts of all different stripes. From economists on trade, to scientists on handling the pandemic and climate change, to intelligence officials on foreign threats, Trump has preferred to “go with his gut.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of experts. Most importantly, they aren’t gods, and therefore they aren’t always right. When we elevate them to a status where we treat their words as infallible, then we are bound to be disappointed. When President Trump criticizes experts, taking every word they say as true is the strawman he is criticizing. Everyone (even Anthony Fauci) makes ill-advised statements on occasion. If an expert must be perfect in order to be listened to, then we should never listen to anyone (including the president).

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Furthermore, experts have their own biases. When you study an issue for your life’s work, you tend to inflate the importance of that issue relative to all others. Disciplines have cultures. Economists tend to be biased in favor of markets. Lawyers tend to be risk averse to losing cases in court. But again, the answer to dealing with these biases is not to ignore the expertise possessed by people in different disciplines.

Merriam Webster’s second definition of “listen” (the first is “to pay attention to sound”) is “to hear something with thoughtful attention, to give consideration.” It seems obvious that we would want our president to “listen” to scientists and other experts. Listening to them is not the same as doing exactly what they want (another strawman). It means making sure you understand the best information available on a given subject.

By contrast, not listening to scientists, means not giving consideration to what they say. Any president or public official who does not give consideration to the advice of experts is going to be making decisions that are more likely to hurt the people they are elected to serve. 

Last week brought additional signals that the Trump administration not only doesn’t want to follow the advice of experts, they don’t even want to listen to it, i.e. give it consideration. The administration issued an executive order that could allow the president to more easily fire people at that top of the civil service. The people in these positions are the top experts in their field within the government. They are also those who are most expert at how government functions. You would think that an administration plagued with failures would care about that. You would be wrong.

Expertise is real. An epidemiologist like Dr. Fauci knows more about infectious diseases than a radiologist like Scott Atlas.

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In a democracy, a leader must know how to balance the preferences of the public with those policies advocated by scientists or other experts that will improve public welfare but may not be easy for the public to accept. Such a leader will listen to a variety of experts (newsflash: even genuine experts may disagree) and will balance their views. 

For example, policy on COVID-19 should be made with input from infectious disease specialists who understand the disease and economists who understand the impacts of shutdowns on employment. Those experts may recommend different approaches, or they may actually agree that successfully curbing the spread of the pandemic is the best way to save the economy. Either way, by “listening” to both, the president will make a better decision.

Not just in relation to COVID-19, but in any policy area, a leader who cares about those he has been chosen to lead should listen to the scientists.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.