Trump Hates Experts. That Doesn’t Mean They’re Always Right.

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It’s tempting to think that, in our current crisis, we’d be in better shape if we just got out of the way of the experts and did whatever they say. But it’s more complicated than that.

In mid-March, Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson successfully lobbied for dramatic, sustained lockdowns to fighting coronavirus.

Within a few weeks, he was backpedaling, telling the Financial Times that lengthy or repeated lockdowns were unrealistic, as “there’s quite a lot of behavioral science underway at the moment suggesting that a lot of people would find that a hard strategy to swallow and accept.”

By early May, it became apparent that Ferguson had been conducting this groundbreaking behavioral science research on, well, himself. He resigned from his government advisory role as it came to light that he violated the very lockdowns he helped engineer, in order to entertain a lover.

Let’s forgive Ferguson’s indiscretion. But let’s also remember that, while experts are often the smartest people in the room, it’s far easier to be an expert than a leader.

Experts live in a world of opinion. Leaders live in a world of decision.

Experts live in a world of should, as in, “you should have done this.” Leaders live in a messy and imperfect world.

“We’re being guided by the science” is the mantra of this pandemic, but it is not as airtight an approach as it seems. It’s naïve to say that the most renowned experts even agree on the science, given that Ferguson’s models differed sharply from those developed at places like Oxford. And, having won the battle to take draconian action, Ferguson himself conceded in April, “We don’t have a clear exit strategy at the moment.“

Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch, another advocate of drastic measures, echoed this. “We’ve managed to get to the life raft,” he told Science magazine. “But I’m really unclear how we will get to the shore.” Lipsitch took something of a wait-and-see approach. “I think there’s going to be a lot of experimentation, not on purpose, but because of politics and local situations,” he said. “Hopefully the world will learn from that.”

There is a myth regarding how we could have avoided a great deal of human misery if we’d only heeded the experts sooner. This sentiment misses how, days after China locked down Wuhan, American health experts were proclaiming that flu season was what we should really be worried about. It misses how, even a month later, World Health Organization officials and media experts were, in a fit of political correctness, decrying temporary travel restrictions as xenophobic and ineffective.   

Granted, some experts were saying that we should have been readier in a thousand ways for a pandemic, should have been more extreme in our shutdowns, should have had a better plan to soften the economic brunt—and going forward, should reorient the global order to prepare for worse pandemics than this one.

It is all easier said than done. Leaders have to make decisions based on conflicting advice, difficult trade-offs and stubborn resistance, then have to accept responsibility and accountability. Experts, by contrast, can often go from one wrong assessment to the next without consequence.

This is not to let off the hook President Donald Trump, who has crashed clumsily from one untenable position to another. He has shown far more concern for his own political standing than the welfare of other human beings. He has blamed the WHO for America’s death toll rather than himself. He has imagined himself to know far more about war than his generals and health than his health officials. He is the exemplar of the leader who refuses the benefits of expertise due to personal arrogance.

Still, the thorny reality is that experts can and do cry wolf. Recall how Trump and various conservative pundits dismissed the coronavirus as not much worse than the flu and thus unworthy of economy-shattering lockdowns. As noted earlier, public health experts unwittingly handed them that talking point. Harvard’s Jeremy Samuel Faust observed recently in Scientific American that the CDC for years inflated flu death statistics, “in order to encourage vaccination and good hygiene.” The CDC wasn’t counting on that exaggeration coming back to haunt the national welfare.

More than a few people have expressed frustration with the moving of lockdown goalposts at the urging of public health officials, which Noah Rothman described as “the seamless transition public officials made from advocating extraordinary measures designed to spare the health-care system from catastrophic collapse to the unceasing perpetuation of those measures until the risk of new infections became negligible.”

In the fog of pandemic, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has emerged as an early hero for implementing some of the stiffest mitigation efforts outside of Wuhan. But that judgment is premature, and we’ll need to wait to see the long-haul effects. As Charlotte Graham-McLay recently wrote in The Guardian, a case can be made that Australia achieved similar results with a lighter touch, one that caused less tearing of the social and economic fabric and which is more sustainable within a world in which the virus will inevitably again cross borders.

And, while various experts have mocked and assailed Sweden’s loose restrictions, even WHO officials have suggested that it may represent a “future model” for societies addressing the prospect of recurring waves of outbreaks.

In any event, wise leaders considering the severity, duration and frequency of lockdowns won’t simply heed the advice of even the best infectious disease experts. Instead, they will balance it with the best advice on how to support the substantial non-Covid-19 portion of the healthcare system, how to keep citizens from becoming homeless and destitute, how to avoid unintended environmental and mental-health consequences of a socially-distanced society, and so on.

An old colleague once wrote a leadership book that dedicated a full, early chapter to experts. He titled it, provocatively, “Experts: Saviors and Charlatans,” taking shots at social scientists, architects, Sigmund Freud and even geologists. I wondered at times if he was settling scores from old dinner-party arguments. But the core of his complaint had to do with how responsible leaders can be “used or used up” by expert advisers and consultants.

To the extent that a leader must make her own decision, that decision requires independent judgment and the acceptance of moral responsibility, not just deference to even the smartest or most persuasive expert within a particular realm. That’s true even in a pandemic, when the expert knows much more about the cause of the pandemic than the leader does.