Expertise blindness has irreparably tainted the COVID response
“If cats could write history, their history would be mostly about cats.” So intoned UCLA Prof. Eugen Weber about midway through his inestimable video lecture series “The Western Tradition.”*
The point this particularly precise polymath was making is that within every person, every organization, every society—for better or ill—there is a certain self-centeredness, a way of looking at new things starting from the point of things they already know. Finding what you are looking for in any given situation can be the result of deep scrutiny, sheer luck, and/or involve what is called “confirmation bias,” which is finding facts and patterns that hew closely to what you were—consciously or not—expecting to find.
When people are not careful, this inherent bias can also result in even the most well-intentioned specialists in any field falling prey to a certain “expertise blindness.” This blindness can lead to catastrophic consequences, even though the experts in question are actually “experts” in their field.
A rather prosaic illustration of this process is to think about different people with different backgrounds trying to solve the same problem. For example, if you ask various professionals in your company why a product is not selling, you will get a myriad of answers—the marketer will point to advertising and design issues, the engineer will focus on possible technical problems, the materials expert will look at what the product’s composition, the finance person will crunch the numbers, etc.
All these experts, at least initially, will look at the issue through the lens of their own specialty. Moreover, each, individually, can be correct—maybe the marketing person got it right, and naming the great new beverage “Crud” is the only real problem. But if the answer is not that obvious, the experts will tend to continue to look at—and try to solve—the problem primarily through their own training, discounting other possibilities unless they are at least made aware of their personal blinkers or even forced to take a more holistic (in its actual original meaning) approach.
Unfortunately, because expertise is so valued in the West, we see this blindness operating constantly in today’s world, especially as societal actors become even more hyper-focused on their own individual programs, desires, and concerns without even having to consider that, although they may be right about “A,” following “A” to its logical conclusion may cause significant damage to “B, C, D….”
There are many examples of the problem “expertise blindness” is causing today—from doctors who specialize in “gender issues” consistently finding gender dysphoria in their patients to climate scientists who always happen to find out that everything is terrible and the earth will melt next Tuesday, etc.
For society at large, though, the area in which this phenomenon has the most impact is the reaction to the COVID pandemic. The public health expert community, since the very beginning, has overwhelmingly viewed the issue purely through an epidemiological lens and absolutely discounted any suggestion that, maybe, factors other than epidemiology should be considered. By being laser-focused on one (albeit important) aspect of the pandemic—actual physical public health—they were blinded to the damage the prescriptions caused society at a very basic level.
Whether out of the purest of motives, or unquestioning certitude, or because for the first time in their lives the rest of us were actually paying attention to them, or because of the rush of the god-like powers that were bestowed upon them (or some combination thereof), public health officials simply ignored the knock-on impacts of their decisions: the academic disaster for children who lost an entire school year, the crippled economy, the long-term societal and psychological impacts of lockdowns, the overt politicization of the scientific process, the devastated trust in our public institutions, and the list goes on.
It is said that in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. But if that one-eyed man only looks in one direction, then he might as well be blind, leaving his subjects—the rest of us—no better off than before he took the throne.
*Weber created the 52-part, almost 24-hours long 24 hours on total length, series on the history of western civilization in 1989, a few years before he retired. The series’ sweeping vision manages to combine telling details with overarching themes that makes for fascinating watching for anyone interested in history. You can watch the entire series for free here.
Thomas Buckley is the former Mayor of Lake Elsinore and a former newspaper reporter. He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more of his work at https://thomas699.substack.co
Image: The Blind Men and the Elephant. 19th-century Japanese netsuke. Public Domain.
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