Crisis of Expertise

by Jennifer Daryl Slack, Distinguished Professor of Communication and Cultural Studies


In May 2020, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson dismissed the advice of physician and immunologist Anthony Fauci on how and how not to open the economy with SARS-CoV-2 still in circulation. Carlson challenged Fauci’s claim to expertise with hostile and rhetorical questions: “How does he know this exactly? Is Tony Fauci right about the science? Do we have any particular reason to think he is right?” Carlson offered his own vague version of the science, in which unnamed “other doctors” hold “other views.” Dr. Fauci was characterized as “silly,” a “buffoon,” one who is “apt to say some stupid things.” He is a “bad scientist”: “When it comes to making long term health recommendations, this guy may be more off base than your average epidemiologist.” 

A key feature of the criticism is the assertion that neither the scientist nor the science should play a significant role in policy-making. Dr. Fauci is someone with “too much power,” because he “has not been elected to anything.” His role “is not the result of any kind of democratic process at work at all.” Carlson concludes the segment with the assertion that “no appointed doctor should make the call on what our federal policy is. We elect leaders for that because we are supposed to be in charge, because it is a democracy.”

Setting aside a few facts—that Dr. Fauci was appointed to give advice on the Federal Coronavirus Task Force, that he has no explicit role in making policy other than offering advice, and that he has a decades-long reputation as an outstanding scientist—this Fox News moment illustrates what is at stake in the growing crisis of resistance to the very idea that “expertise” deserves a role in American politics, policymaking, and culture.

Expertise, defined as the deep knowledge, skill, and competence gained through education, training, apprenticeship, certification, and ongoing assessment, has come increasingly under attack in American culture. Although Tom Nichols’ 2017 popular book The Death of Expertise sensationalizes the matter some, he claims that “the United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance” and that “we’re proud of not knowing things.” While healthy skepticism of experts is warranted, Nichols fears that we have gone too far: “we actively resent them, with many people assuming that experts are wrong simply by virtue of being experts.” Nichol’s fear is echoed in the Fox News dismissal of Dr. Fauci.

We don’t elect experts by popular vote. Expertise is attained in discipline-specific ways designed by previously designated experts with the goal of maintaining the integrity of different skill sets. Experts are “grown,” cultivated by other experts in processes of self-governance and self-regulation. Who, after all, would know better than those who already know? Scientific self-regulation has built in processes designed to move knowledge forward, correct errors, and offer the best assessments of what is true and what is not. Individual scientists are never always right and knowledge changes; but recognizing that fact is the source of the informed skepticism integral to the disciplinary oversight of the scientific process. When someone like Dr. Fauci offers advice based on science, he does so with decades of knowledge cultivated and recognized as worthy of being taken seriously. 

The growing disbelief in vetted scientific expertise, notably climate science and virus science, has been promulgated by inexpert political resistance, aided by the proliferation of magical thinking, and amplified by opportunistic media. 

When scientific knowledge is politically inconvenient, as are climate science and the science of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, it is tempting to wish it wasn’t so. There is no question, for example, that the current pandemic threatens to derail the narrative of the president’s economic brilliance. As a result, we are witnessing a struggle between scientific expertise and politically expedient delusion, as has sometimes been played out publicly and spectacularly in the live presentations of the Coronavirus Task Force. While many are surprised by the success of delusion, a close look at culture makes this more understandable. “Magical thinking,” thinking and acting as if it is so makes it so, is actively at work in this moment, cultivated by a president who has built his coalition on telling stories “as if it is so” and taking actions “as if it is so.” The very idea that the pandemic is a hoax can be traced back to presidential speeches and tweets. Because it really is more pleasant to believe that this terrible disease isn’t going to disrupt our lives, people are easily persuaded to disrespect expertise in favor of the magic of delusion.

The disregard for expertise is exacerbated by media, which democratically and ironically facilitate the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and unvetted information that counters otherwise legitimate expert information. Segments of the media, which include Tucker Carlson on Fox News; anonymous social media posts, often bots operating from undisclosed locations; and politically motivated broadcasts, films, videos, podcasts, articles, and books, feed the resistance to expertise. It is exceedingly easy in this digital age to generate and circulate media materials that have all the appearance of expertise. They look like and claim to be produced by experts. Without recognition of and respect for discipline-regulated expertise, any person or position can pose effectively as one. In contrast, the rigorous debates and decisions on the science of SARS-CoV-2 take place primarily in laboratories and academic journals. When someone like Dr. Fauci speaks publicly, we see only the end result of an arduous discipline at work, whereas politically motivated and uniformed speech, like that of Tucker Carlson, is more prevalent, accessible, and understandable. When that speech tells a story that is easier to accept and politically reassuring, the expertise of science is more easily dismissed.  

The mistrust of expertise has infiltrated everyday life making it especially difficult to respond constructively to SARS-CoV-2. We are experiencing a complex crisis, a struggle in which the exigencies of material reality and expert guidance are confounded by profound delusion. The resulting chaos, in which politics and magical thinking often trump scientific expertise, threatens us all with potentially death-wielding consequences.