Part 3: Should Experts Have Power?

In my last two EconLog essays (here and here), I examined some of the causes of expert failure seemingly at work in the present crisis. I pointed out that we don’t know how to strike a balance among the different expert silos such as medicine and economics. And I pointed out that in many areas of expertise, state-supported professional associations enforce uniformity of opinion so that we don’t get the sort of flexible thinking and multiple perspectives we need even more urgently now than in normal times. I don’t know which epidemiological models are best. And nobody knows the best policy package. We cannot somehow escape the urgent necessity of making collective choices to fight COVID-19. In this difficult moment, we should be respectful of the extreme difficulty of formulating policy. In the midst of it all, however, we should also reflect on how very hard it has been to wisely deploy expertise in a crisis. Is there a better way?

I think we have made our lives harder – and put them at greater risk – by trying to contain expertise in officially recognized boxes controlled by the very experts ensconced within them. I refer to the “expertists template” of certification, professional education, and continuing education that I described in my previous essay in this series. When expertise is organized into state-supported professional organizations such as the AMA, it tends to enforce orthodoxy. And that means less pliable, flexible, and adaptive thinking. It means less tinkering and more doctrine. Oops.

The expertist template is premised on the view that knowledge is hierarchical. It starts at the top with science and cascades down to ever lower levels of the knowledge hierarchy. Mere practitioners must not question the knowledge elite. But questioning is precisely what we need in crises. In his essay, “What is Science?” Richard Feynman remarked “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” When we give experts power, including the power to decide who the experts are, we choke off science. The premise of a rigid hierarchy of knowers is mistaken. The knowledge we need in normal times and crisis times alike is distributed. It’s out there in thee and me and in all our habits practices and experience. It is not a set of instructions and doctrines coming from on high. It arises of its own from our many decentralized interactions. 

Let’s take an example. The pandemic has produced a shortage of “personal protective equipment” (PPE) such as masks and gowns. What can we do? One very helpful solution comes out of a relatively small company in Ohio, Battelle. They have a machine that can clean large quantities of PPE in a hurry. The knowledge of how to do it did not come down from scientific inquiry, but up from entrepreneurial action. And yet, as I write, the knowledge elite at the FDA “has authorized Columbus-based Battelle to sterilize only 10,000 surgical masks in Ohio each day, despite their ability to sterilize up to 160,000 masks per day in Ohio alone.” The official knowledge hierarchy is squelching the sort of adaptive tinkering that we need to improvise our way out of this mess.  

This distributed quality of expertise follows from its source in the division of labor. As I said in the first essay of this series, the division of knowledge is the flip side of the division of labor. But that means that is it not some simple hierarchy dictated from on high. It is emergent, protean, and evolving. It does not cascade down, it bubbles up. 

Consider ventilators. March 24th, the FDA lifted many of restrictions on ventilators. Hospitals have been restricted to using only “FDA-cleared ventilators.” The lifting of restrictions reveals the folly of pretending that the knowledge elite can pre-decide what medical equipment is acceptable. Just as they could not reasonably have foreseen the current pandemic, they cannot reasonably foresee the many idiosyncratic particulars of time and place that might turn otherwise sensible regulations into life-threatening folly. If there had been no such restrictions in the first place, how many new emergency ventilators might have long since arrived in our hospitals? Instead, we have seen “ventilator sharing.” And can we be sure that there are no remaining restrictions that should also be lifted? You still require FDA approval; it’s just that the FDA approves more things.  

We need a better way. We need a resilient system in which local knowledge comes with local decision-making authority. But, how do we get there? Because we have had a relatively controlled and hierarchical system, markets have not had much opportunity to work up the sort of institutions and arrangements we need when choosing among experts. If we just tear down the expertist template, we will be left without guidance. Let us set to work then, at the hard task of learning how to dispense with the expertist template and return power and energy to entrepreneurialism. 



Roger Koppl is Professor of Finance in the Whitman School of Management of Syracuse University and Associate Director of Whitman’s Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society (IES).