Pandemics and the Problem of Expert Failure
By Roger Koppl
Part 1: Which Experts Matter in a Pandemic?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we might have thought that “the experts” knew best and could guide us. But there is more than one area of expertise. And the speed, scale, and scope of this pandemic mean that we don’t know which areas of expertise matter or how to balance competing considerations coming from those that do. It would be a mistake to try to find one person to blame for what might turn out to be a case of expert failure. The root problem is not faulty expertise or bad actors. The root problem is that we are asking experts and politicians to do more than is humanly possible.
There is a structural problem with experts that is rooted in the division of labor that feeds us all. Each of us specializes in one or a few tasks. We make more than we want of some things, not enough of others. We make too much of a few things we may not even want, and too little of the things we do want. That’s okay, however, because we can trade our respective surpluses. Because we trade, each of us gets more of the many things we ultimately desire than we could have hoped to make on our own in splendid isolation. It is the system of specialization and trade. Each of us occupies a more or less unique place in this division of labor. But because we are specialized, each of us will know some things, but not others. We are, all of us, in our separate silos. The barber knows about hair clippers, but not teeth. The dentist knows about teeth, but not hair clippers. The flip side of the division of labor is the division of knowledge.
Because of this division of knowledge, each of us has expertise that few others have. In this sense, we can say that the division of labor is a division of expertise. And that’s what creates trouble at a moment such as this when we are driven to seek out the experts’ advice when taking collective action. The world’s governments today are turning to the experts. But to which experts? Which silos of expertise matter?
We are struggling with the tradeoff between stopping the virus and stopping the economy. Epidemiologists warn us to maintain social distancing. They want to put much of the economy on hold. But economists warn us of unemployment and cascading bankruptcies. Psychologists warn us that unemployment and isolation promote substance abuse and suicide. And so on. Who can adjudicate their competing frameworks?
Unfortunately, no one can be a grand meta-expert rising above the many lesser experts. The meta-expert would have to know everything, in which case we would not have a division of knowledge at all. Every expert is a lesser expert with prefabricated problems and solutions that define their expertise and apply only to one thin slice of reality. Their disciplinary expertise makes certain problems relevant and prescribes certain solutions to those problems, and only those problems. But this means that when politicians take the collective action recommended by their experts, somebody else is deciding for us “what is and is not relevant to us.” And those prefabricated “relevancies” will reflect some areas of expertise and not others, some slices of reality and not others.
If the politicians listen only to the epidemiologists, then one set of relevancies matters, and the rest will be ignored. Just as the barber will recommend a haircut and ignore the toothache, the epidemiologist will recommend lockdown without considering what unemployment and idle resources may imply for our overall physical and psychological health. Does that mean that the politicians should consult both epidemiologists and economists? Perhaps. But how will they decide which set of prefabricated interpretations to apply where and how? How are they to balance the competing considerations coming from the experts’ separate silos? And how many such silos are they to balance? Shall they consider only epidemiologists and economists? What about psychologists? Sociologists? Ecologists? Anthropologists? Engineers?
We cannot avoid this impossible balancing act once we are in collective decision-making mode. Inevitably, the experts upon whom we rely are lodged firmly in their several silos. And there is no agreed-upon, rational, and proven technique for striking some sort of equilibrium among them. We’re flying blind. “The pandemic will pass,” Nobel economist Vernon Smith has wisely admonished us. And once it has, we should seek out ways to avoid the necessity of balancing competing areas of expertise. It is a fundamentally impossible task that requires arbitrary actions that are correspondingly impossible to justify to the satisfaction of all reasonable persons. Let’s try to avoid that in the future if we can.
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).