Be Prudent when Consulting Experts


Paul Krugman has an interesting column today (8/1/14) in which he argues that politicians ignore the consensus of experts and choose to get their advice only from those that are aligned politically with them. (Surprise?)

Am I saying that the professional consensus is always right? No. But when politicians pick and choose which experts — or, in many cases, “experts” — to believe, the odds are that they will choose badly. Moreover, experience shows that there is no accountability in such matters. Bear in mind that the American right is still taking its economic advice mainly from people who have spent many years wrongly predicting runaway inflation and a collapsing dollar.

In spite of his concern over ignoring possibly good advice, he has fallen into the trap of objectivity and is talking about right (and wrong.) He has a good argument about relying on a consensus, but a consensus of experts has little to do with finding the right answer in a complex situation such as the economy and issues like climate change always are. Believing that a right answer exists, allows decision-makers to defer action until such an answer shows up. Objective science is useful in complex situations only as far as putting careful analysts in the vicinity of a pragmatically useful result, a starting point for action. Pragmatic “truth” is only produced by a group of concerned parties, including experts, who examine the situation with whatever rigor can be found.

Yesterday I wrote about the “fallacy of mistaken concreteness,” which is at play whenever people call on experts to provide answers to complex problems. Experts use theories to provide answers, but their theories always fail to match the unique, concrete context of the problem. The fundamental nature of science, natural and social, is to isolate a part of the messy world and use their methods to reveal some “truth” about it. This truth can be applied only to identical situations. For example, gravity is truly universal, but macro-economics is not. The world is always more complex that the isolated set of assumptions that bound a theory or model.

Krugman continues his mistake when he follows with:

And macroeconomics, of course, isn’t the only challenge we face. In fact, it should be easy compared with many other issues that need to be addressed with specialized knowledge, above all climate change. So you really have to wonder whether and how we’ll avoid disaster.…All of which raises a troubling question: Are we as societies even capable of taking good policy advice?

I would argue, “No!” Not if that means listening only to experts. The Greeks knew this, and even had a special word, phronesis, to describe the kind of knowledge necessary for governing, a kind of emotional intelligence or social skill. The Romans carried it into Latin as prudentia and it remains alive as prudence, acting with caution or wisely. Phronesis was a form of knowledge distinct from epistêmē, truths derived from abstract thinking. The Greeks also had another kind, metis, that meant a kind of street smarts, but which seems to have no modern counterpart. Metis was the name of a Titaness, identified as representing prudence. The combination of metis and phronesis becomes, more or less, wisdom: a form of knowledge gleaned from successful living. The last form, technē, was knowledge gained from craft, that is, from working with materials of the earth. The distinctions among these have become fuzzy over time.

Wisdom is hardly to be found anywhere in the legislatures of the US. Expertise (epistêmē), alone, may work for problems involving simple, deterministic systems, but problems that get to the level of national policy are rarely simple. But even here, wisdom adds a richness that epistêmē lacks. Complexity demands a (pragmatic) inquiry by a group of parties sincerely concerned about the problem at hand. The most powerful such group would be able to apply all the forms of knowledge-epistêmē, phronesis, metis, and technē-to arrive at the best, not the objectively right, path forward. Commissions or other forms with such collective skills are occasionally convened to figure out what to do, but only rarely. Involving such commissions, or their ilk, tends to elongate the decision process, but the wait would be well waiting for. Our present Congress acts as if the answers from a group like this might confound their political positions, and instead does little at all. Krugman notes that they ignore the consensus of experts. I can only imagine how they would treat the “knowledge” coming from a pragmatic inquiry by any group truly committed to find answers that might make a real difference.