Beware experts bearing consensus

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Appeared in the National Post, April 1, 2021
Beware experts bearing consensus

One of the potential long-term consequences of the COVID pandemic and recession is that experts will be elevated to positions of authority, influence and decision-making not commensurate with their actual knowledge and contrary to the principles of democracy.

This is not to say that experts should not play a key role in policy-making. They should. But as advisers to elected officials. The predisposition in democracies should always be to leave decision-making in the hands of individuals and families, and when collective action is required to first favour voluntary organizations before imposing state dictates. And when state action is required, the principle of "subsidiarity" should apply: use the level of government able to intervene effectively that is closest to the people, which means favouring local governments over provincial and provincial over federal.

Today we're moving towards the exact opposite, empowering Ottawa to impose one-size-fits-all policies for the entire country. For instance, the federal government may soon introduce national daycare, national pharmacare and massive spending and regulation for green initiatives to fundamentally redesign Canada's economy.

This greater reliance on experts is born from several misunderstandings.

The first is the limit of expert knowledge, particularly during crises. People naturally yearn for certainty and when uncertainty reigns, as it did in much of 2020, they look to experts for answers. Many experts have deep knowledge of their specific areas but no one has complete knowledge. It's therefore impossible for experts to fully understand all the implications of their recommendations. Indeed, a mainstay of economics is the study of unintended consequences.

Moreover, although experts clearly have more knowledge and information about specific issues, like the rest of us they make mistakes. When they are granted more power and decision-making authority, their mistakes can impose costs on the entirety of society. And, as Queen's University law professor Bruce Pardy recently explained on this page, actual policy decisions by governments involve weighing trade-offs that are far beyond the scope of expertise of any particular expert.

This falsehood, that experts have complete knowledge, is amplified by the worrying role of consensus—that when a consensus (or even just a majority) forms among experts, it must be correct. This misunderstands the nature of scientific discovery and economic progress.

Many scientific breakthroughs have run contrary to the consensus of their time, in some cases costing the people pursuing them dearly. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), a Hungarian physician and scientist, discovered the benefits of hand-washing for doctors in preventing infections and reducing patient mortality. Instead of being celebrated for his discovery, however, Semmelweis was ostracized by his colleagues, who thought his breakthrough blamed them for the death of patients. Semmelweis eventually lost his job and was later institutionalized. Today double-blind testing of scientific propositions makes tragic mistakes like this less likely, but where propositions are complex or for other reasons difficult to test scientifically, as are climate or macroeconomic theories, consensus remains influential.

The great 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter explained the need for open markets and the removal of barriers to entry for entrepreneurs to discover new products and services that challenge existing firms. The same holds true for ideas. Now more than ever, we need an open environment for ideas, including in the realm of science; otherwise, the risks of groupthink and the inevitable peer pressure from consensus overwhelm the natural instinct to question the status quo and search for better ways.

An additional emerging issue linked with experts is the lack of differentiation between facts and modelling (i.e. predicting the future). Despite economic, climate and health models being wildly inaccurate and unreliable, they are increasingly relied upon for policymaking as if they were facts.

For example, in mid-March of last year, just as lockdowns were beginning in the West, Neil Ferguson, a U.K. epidemiologist, and his colleagues at the Imperial College London issued a report estimating worse-case scenarios of 2.2 million U.S. deaths and 510,000 British deaths from COVID in the, as they wrote, "(unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour." Although the report's purpose was to indicate by how much different non-pharmaceutical strategies could reduce these death totals (answer: by a lot) the media reported the no-response, worst-case numbers as fact, prompting U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shape public policy based on them. As of March 30, 2021, according to the World Health Organization, COVID-related deaths stood at 544,430 in the United States and 126,615 in the U.K., at less than a quarter the no-response forecasts from Ferguson and his team.

Like everyone else, experts have personal preferences and limited knowledge and make mistakes. In democracies, when collective action is required via the state, it's imperative that those making the decisions can be held accountable through the democratic process. Giving experts undue authority, even going so far as to cede decision-making to them, not only ignores the decidedly mixed history of expert-made decisions, but also runs contrary to the principles of democracy.

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