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OPINION

Time to end populism’s war on expertise

The coronavirus crisis shows why we need to listen to the professionals.

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

Pause for a moment to count the immediate things you value in these tough times.

Beyond your loved ones, your pets, and your strategic reserve of toilet paper, that is.

Move to intangibles and this should rank high on your list: knowledge you can trust.

Information on how to protect yourself from the coronavirus. Instructions on how to ensure a package is safe to bring into your home. Advice on how to assess symptoms if you fear you may be infected.

Ultimately or directly, that counsel comes from people with specialized knowledge. That is, experts, who have usually acquired their understanding through intensive study.

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Those people are, at this moment, widely sought and highly valued.

And yet, prior to COVID-19, the credibility of experts and expertise had been under regular sneering attack from populists.

Part of that was based on resentment of elites, part on geographic rivalries and suspicions: rural communities versus cities, the heartland versus the coasts. Part of it was journalistic impulse: There’s a seeming cottage industry devoted to articles or TV segments about expert error — some fair critiques, some based on conjurers’ tricks.

Americans of a certain contrarian outlook confidently assert that experts are overeducated snobs who lack those essential qualities their critics imagine themselves to possess in spades: street smarts and common sense.

Those who occasionally traveled by taxi in the pre-coronavirus era have no doubt encountered one or more of those remarkable sages who could solve Washington’s most pressing problems in a leisurely afternoon — if only they weren’t engaged in transporting passengers hither and thither in cities run by mayors every bit the idiotic equal of the political class in Washington. Tune in to talk radio and you can, um, benefit, from some of those same assumptive autodidacts outlining the myriad and oh-so-obvious mistakes everyone from sports managers to central bankers to weather forecasters are forever making.

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Some are run-of-the-mill know-it-alls, others seeming examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: people who, oblivious to their own cognitive shortcomings, significantly overestimate their abilities. One also sees that in the anti-vaccination savants, some of whom are sure they have spotted trends and events the medical establishment has overlooked.

Sometimes the anti-experts have a unified field theory that explains the real experts’ supposed idiocy: They are all corrupt or puppets of plutocrats or corporatists or globalists or in thrall to an ironclad orthodoxy that brooks no dissent.

A normal response to expert guidance is to err on the side of safety. Not among the anti-expert populists, however. Among them, the impulse is to reject their advice out of hand.

Let’s hope the coronavirus pandemic will spark a renewed appreciation of expertise.

The type of future we face may depend on it.

As serious as this crisis is, we are already being confronted by another projected to have equally dire long-term consequences: climate change. That storm is coming, climate scientists tell us, and the earth science evidence certainly bears them out.

The impulse of one of our two major political parties, however, has been to shrug off the expert consensus by insisting that there isn’t one or asserting that the science isn’t settled, or dismissing it all as an attempt by scientists and liberals to assert control over the everyday lives of Americans.

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One can see some similar anti-expert sentiments reflected in polling. Two-thirds of Republicans think scientists’ decisions about science-related policy issues are no better or worse than other people’s, while 55 percent of Republicans say scientists are just as likely to be biased, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

The GOP has put itself in the service of a man who disdains the expert opinion, disregards climate science, and believes he knows more than anyone alive about an astonishing variety of subjects. A man who, despite (or perhaps because of) his overweening self-confidence, was enormously wrong about COVID-19 being well under control — with devastating consequences for this country.

Isn’t it time to credit the experts again?


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh