Why don’t Americans trust the experts?
One answer is that experts get a lot of things wrong and often they pay a big price for those mistakes. From the forever wars to the 2008 financial crisis to the botched pandemic response, it seems Americans are constantly careening from one avoidable catastrophe to another.
Another answer is something like Martin Gurri’s thesis in his 2014 book The Revolt of the Public: The digital revolution has transformed the information space in ways that have empowered individuals and undermined the dominant institutions in society — government, media, the academy — and the elites who run them.
Whatever the causes, America has an expert problem and it’s making it harder and harder to solve its societal troubles. Michael Lewis, bestselling author of books like Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, is taking all of this on in the new season of his podcast Against the Rules.
Lewis is as good a storyteller as we have, and he takes a close look at what’s happened to our trust in experts and expertise. The problem, he says, isn’t that we lack experts; in fact, we have lots of experts and some of them have likely saved your life before. The issue is that we don’t value expertise and are therefore really bad at recognizing it when we see it.
I reached out to Lewis for a recent episode of Vox Conversations to talk about how we got here, why it’s an existential problem, and at what point skepticism of authority becomes pathological.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
We live in a society that is very good at creating knowledge and very bad at applying it. Why is that, Michael?
It’s a really great question. I think part of it is that we have the luxury of being that way. There are various safety nets for our idiocy.
But why are we so bad at this? If you listen to all the [podcast] episodes this season, although I never quite say it, you might say [the answer could be], “Well, in a lot of spheres of life, there has risen new expertise. It’s very complicated and it’s not easy to understand the expertise, especially for people who are not particularly numerate or statistical or scientific.”
I’ll give you an example: meteorologists. So you’re in Gulfport, Mississippi, right now. There’s a famous old weatherman in Alabama named James Spann. He says he’s the second most famous man in Alabama, behind Nick Saban, the football coach. He’s a wonderful weatherman who’s devoted his life to stopping people from getting killed by the weather in Alabama, which happens often.
And he said 50 years ago when he started, he knew basically nothing. When he got up to predict the weather he’d stick his head out the window and say, “It’s pretty sunny today.” He would give you a very crude understanding of what might happen in the next couple of days. Ten days out, he was useless. It was no better than guessing. He certainly had no idea when and where tornadoes were going to touch down. Not very good at predicting movements of hurricanes. But, he said, he stood up on air and his job was to seem as confident as possible about what he was saying.
Now, flash forward 50 years; he knows a great deal. His 10-day forecast is pretty good. His three-day forecast is three times more accurate than it was 50 years ago. He can tell you with some precision where you’re at real risk of being killed by a tornado and when and how to save yourself from it. Still, his life is a constant stream of grievances from the people who feel he’s misinformed them. If he says there’s a 20 percent chance of rain and it rains, everybody thinks he’s an idiot. They don’t understand the probabilistic nature of forecasting.
You find this in a whole bunch of areas where the expertise is complicated and the understanding is probabilistic. Think about medicine. Doctors knew this before Covid, but now it’s so obvious. Doctors will tell you they know so much more than they did 30 years ago as a profession. They are much more useful to patients. But every day more and more people are walking into the office after reading something on WedMD and they think they know what they’re talking about.
It’s not a full answer, but there’s something about our information environment and our ability to understand people who are making probabilistic judgments that make it difficult to evaluate expertise.
I’ve said a bunch over the years that I think we’re a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and maybe that’s part of the reason why we don’t recognize expertise when we see it.
I think that’s right. Let me tell you a story that dramatizes what you just said. I wrote a book about the federal government called The Fifth Risk, where I just wandered into the federal government and looked at it as a risk-management enterprise and kept meeting these unbelievably impressive, passionate, mission-driven experts who were just trying to save us from ourselves.
After I finished that book, we had our government shutdown in December 2018 and it lasted for over 30 days. [Hundreds of thousands of federal workers were furloughed] as inessential workers and sent home without pay. And I thought of those people I’d met. I asked for a list of people who’d been sent home from an organization in Washington that was monitoring the situation, called the Partnership for Public Service. It was not a random sample of federal employees. It was federal employees who’d been nominated for one of the awards they gave out every year by someone who thought they’d done something good.
So I took this list and picked someone at random. It was a guy whose name was on the top of the list: Arthur A. Allen. He won the alphabet contest. So I call him up and asked him if I could come visit him and just see what he’s doing. He had nothing else to do. He was sitting at home with nothing to do.
This is a guy who spent his whole career as the lone oceanographer in the Coast Guard search-and-rescue division, where he’d started in the late ’70s. There was a particular problem he was working on by himself, and the problem was costing a lot of American lives. It was people being lost at sea. The Coast Guard didn’t know how they drifted in the ocean. And Americans have this unbelievable talent for getting lost at sea, which is a whole other thing. On average, every day, the Coast Guard is saving 10 people who are lost in the sea and losing three. So you’re talking about thousands of people who are getting in this situation every year.
The problem is that if you fall off a boat into the ocean, you’re going to drift differently than if you are in a life raft, or if you’re on top of an overturned sailboat, or if you have a life vest on — you get the point. So if the Coast Guard knows where and when you started, as they often do, they should be able to predict where you are in the ocean four hours later, knowing the currents and the wind and your drift. But they didn’t know the drift, until Arthur A. Allen figured it all out. He spent years of his own free time tossing objects into the Long Island Sound, where he lives, measuring the specific drift of like 80 different categories of objects.
That all sounds boring and tedious, I know. But he reduced the drift to mathematical equations and embedded them in the search-and-rescue software program, and instantly they were able to find people they never would’ve found before. Thousands of Americans are alive because of Arthur A. Allen. And thousands of people are alive around the world because of the work he did here. No one knows who he is. No one pays any attention to him. They furloughed him as if he’s useless.
The punchline to all of this, to your point about the way we treat these experts who save our tails over and over again, is that when I went to go see Arthur to talk to him about what he had done with his life, I spent three days with him, interviewing his family, going to see his old office, going to the Long Island Sound to see where he dropped his objects, asking him every which way the story of his career.
After the three days, I’m going back to the airport to head home and he calls me and says, with real wonder in his voice, “Hey, you’re a published author.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m a published author.” He says, “You’re like a real deal. You’re a real writer.” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Are you going to be writing about me?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s why I spent three days learning how objects drift. Yes. I’m going to be writing about you.” He goes, “Wow. I didn’t expect to get any attention for this.” And I said, “Well, what did you think I was doing for those three days?” He said, “I just thought you were really interested in how objects drift.”
This is the mental world of the government expert. They’re so used to nobody caring about what they do, even when what they do is mission-critical, that they can’t imagine us even taking an interest in them. We so don’t value them that they don’t value themselves.
You make an offhand comment in one of the early shows about the arbitrariness of social status and how that has a way of obscuring someone’s real value, and I can’t help but think of it now.
I really think that we exaggerate status differences and create inequality at our peril. These people we end up shoving into lower-status roles actually know things.
We have these big complicated organizations and agencies and corporations, and when some crisis pops up it usually has a very specific solution, and it’s really unlikely that that specific solution is going to be in the heads of the people who are at the top of the organization. It’s going to be something nitty-gritty and the person is going to be six levels down in the organization. And if you’ve created these barriers between the levels, so that someone who’s six levels down will never be heard by someone at the top, you’re essentially saying, we’re never going to surface the expertise that we need to deal with the problem.
Something like this happened in the pandemic. We had this apparatus for dealing with communicable disease. It was called local public health. That’s who did it, local public health officers. Their status was so low. They were so socially powerless. They still haven’t stepped front and center stage and taken over the thing.
But if I were a television producer booking guests who can explain to America what’s going on with Covid, that’s who I’d book. But you don’t see them because they’re invisible because they’re low-status. You see some fancy-pants person who worked in the White House who doesn’t actually know anything. And this is a broader problem that has been exacerbated by the structure of our society, by these widening chasms, between level one and level two, and level two and level three, and level three and level four, and so on.
A certain amount of skepticism of expertise and authority is healthy, but at what point do you think that skepticism becomes pathological?
That’s an unanswerable question, but I’ll give it a whirl.
It becomes pathological when your unwillingness to take in what the putative authority or expert is saying kills you. It’s pathological when you turn up in the emergency room as a 45-year-old healthy police officer with Covid, as someone in one of our stories does, and he’s circling the drain and refuses to be intubated because, in his view, hospitals are trying to kill people in the ICU — that’s pathological.
It’s pathological when you are running a big Wall Street firm and you’re unable to distinguish between the trader, who’s making a lot of money in your firm, making really dumb bets on the subprime mortgage market, and the person who has actually got a bead on how the subprime mortgage market is working and can explain it to you, but you don’t want to hear it — and so your firm blows up.
You can get away with ignoring a lot of expertise in your life as you move through the world. And I agree that you never want to lose your ability to question the things you’re being told, but it’s also not true that everybody has a right to an opinion about everything. I don’t have a right to an opinion about climate change. Neither does Donald Trump. There are people who study this stuff, their whole lives are devoted to trying to understand it. They are state of the art. It is a scientific consensus. My opinion shouldn’t exist, but people think they have a right to an opinion about it.
Do you think, on some level, that the world has become so big and so complex that it’s too much for people to make sense of, and the temptation to retreat into conspiracy theory or tribalism is just too irresistible?
To default into a narrative that’s fueled by anecdote that happens to come from the small circle of people in your world — I’ve seen this. I’ve been amazed with people I admire and who I think are intelligent who will sit down with me and tell me they’re not getting vaccinated because the vaccine is making people sick.
And they’re not wrong in one way. They know somebody who got sick, but that’s the thing that they pay attention to as opposed to the 1 billion studies that show that you were just so much better off being vaccinated. It’s like you walked into the casino for the first time in your life, looked at all the games, and you saw someone pull a slot machine and they hit the jackpot, and you decide, “Oh, well, the slot machines are the smart game to play here.”
It’s people organizing a complicated world with stories that are basically not true stories. They’re not representative stories. They just happen to be the stories they hear. And if you made me God and said, “Michael, how do you fix this problem?” — if I could do anything, I’d probably start with making everyone take a basic course in statistics. Everybody would have to learn a little bit about data and probabilities, just so they understand the notion of a small sample size, especially a sample size of one.
Do you have any sense at all of what it would take to rebuild trust in our society?
I tend to think of this stuff on such a personal, micro level and not as a broader social thing. Again, if you’re handing me God-like powers, one of the things I’d do is, maybe not create some kind of mandatory national service, but at least strongly incentivize people, when they’re 18 or 19, to spend a year or a year and a half working in some government service where they’re all mixed up with other kinds of people.
Part of the problem is we’re not mixed up enough. It’s much easier to think of “us” and “them” if you’re in Berkeley, California, and you’ve never met anybody from Alabama, or if you’re in Alabama and you’ve never met anybody from Berkeley, California. Or if you are poor and you’ve never met a rich person, or if you’re rich and you’ve never had to do anything with a poor person.
It’s amazing how helpful it is when people have personal experience doing something together, trying to achieve something together with people entirely different from themselves. Then we have a living sense that we’re not all that different. There’s no us and them. We don’t belong in these tribes. It’s not the natural order of things. So mixing up the society more in various ways is one answer I would give.
My own personal answer is what I do with my time. I’ve been trying to write about this in ways that invite people who might be deeply skeptical that anything in the government is good for them to see this in a different light. Like, this thing exists to keep you safe. Think about it that way. This is the thing that storytellers can do to help.