Pandemics and the Problem of Expert Failure (continued)
Part 2: Should Experts Agree?
In my last EconLog essay, I examined the impossible tradeoff between expert fields. Each area of expertise is a separate silo, I argued, and we don’t have any good way to strike a balance among these competing perspectives. That’s why the politics of pandemic policy are so fraught. In this essay, I want to discuss a different source of expert failure: uniformity of opinion within areas of expertise. With the speed, scale, and scope of this pandemic we need to break away from rigid orthodoxies and move adaptively to new models. But such flexibility is thwarted by the slotting of experts into professions that often enjoy governmental support. It takes diversity of viewpoints and meaningful discussion to reach the new insights we need to fight this thing. The enforced orthodoxy of professional associations frustrates such free-wheeling inquiry.
Professions such as medicine, law, and pharmacy serve to keep outsiders out and insiders in. The expertists template of certification, professional education, and continuing education has been applied across the globe and across the disciplines. Take medicine. In the US, you cannot generally sit for a medical license unless you graduated from an accredited medical school. And guess who does the accrediting? Strictly speaking it’s the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). But they are “sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the American Medical Association (AMA).” Crudely put, the doctors decide who can join their club, and the AMA is their membership committee. Just consider the incentives that creates. Most obviously, doctors have an incentive to restrict entry. Outsiders must be kept out. That’s bad for you and me. Healthcare costs more, and we get less of it. Less obvious is the incentive toward uniformity of opinion and the way that sets us up for gloom and doom.
There is an incentive toward uniformity of opinion because doctors and other professionals make their money from the officially recognized knowledge of their profession. If there is too much disagreement among the experts in a field, we might start to have doubts. Yes, doctor, but why should I believe you? Uniformity of opinion becomes an imperative. Doctors and other experts are kept away from supposed quackery, “by a whole body of professional knowledge that offers them ‘scientific proof’ of the folly and even wickedness of deviance.” Insiders must be kept in. Think “epistemic Berlin wall.”
Such enforced orthodoxy creates an incentive to forecast doom for anyone foolish enough to flout expert advice. “Thus the general population is intimidated by images of the physical doom that follows” from going against the advice of the doctor or the economist.
All of this creates a dubious dynamic in times of crisis. We have come to expect that experts don’t disagree. We are correspondingly quick to follow their advice even perhaps without much critical attention. The Imperial College model of the pandemic might be an example. This is the model that predicted 2.2 million deaths in the US. It seems to have been important in driving at least some governors in the US to put their states in lockdown. I would not pretend to judge whether the Imperial model is good or bad, or whether those governors made good or bad choices. But it is noteworthy how surprised many people were when the competing Oxford model came out. This surprise seems to have inspired news stories explaining that a model is, well, a model and not the real thing. The projected death toll of 2.2 million assumed “absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behavior.” And yet this vital qualification fell from public view as any number of second-hand experts predicted unqualified doom. We have even seen fights on whether subsequent remarks by the report’s principal author were or were not a retraction. (Spoiler alert: Not really.)
Whatever the merits of the Imperial College model or the Oxford model, whatever the merits of the many lockdowns we have seen, we should not like enforced orthodoxy or the incentive it creates to forecast doom for anyone foolish enough to flout the experts. Going forward we might seek out a better system of expert influence on social policy. I will share some thoughts on that issue in my next essay on EconLog, the last of this short series.
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).