Should We Pay Attention to Experts Anymore?

News at Home

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and Contributing Editor of HNN. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here. His most recent book is An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (Anthem Press, 2008). 

On complex political matters we bloggers, Internet commentators, and citizens have far more opinions than expertise. Our involvement in Afghanistan is a prime example. Almost all of us have opinions about our involvement there; few of us have any expertise about it, including most of us historians who contribute to HNN. What is the proper relationship between experts (and the powerful they advise) and the rest of us? These thoughts occurred to me as I paused from reading Robert Gates’s memoir Duty in order to scan a New York Times editorial “Trapped in Afghanistan.”

First, Gates’s comments on Afghanistan. His position—and that of many others including presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008—was that by late 2006 the Afghan war, which months after 9/11/2001 had ousted the Taliban from power, was being neglected. When President Bush interviewed Gates for the position of secretary of defense, which he assumed in late 2006, that is what he told the president. After Obama assumed office in 2009, he kept Gates as his secretary of defense (until he resigned in mid-2011). The two men and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all believed that more American troops were needed (as the president’s National Security adviser wrote in a 2009 memo) to “deny safe haven to al Qaeda and to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government.”

To accomplish this goal, Gates tells us in Duty, he wished U.S. forces to attack “the Taliban and other extremists so as to degrade their military capabilities,” while at the same time “building up the Afghan army and local security forces.” He also details all the discussions and meetings involving him and the president that occurred in 2009 concerning Afghanistan. In February Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. In mid-2009 the newly-appointed commander of military forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley A. McChrystal, whom Gates considered the world’s leading “counterterrorism practitioner,” convinced Gates that tens of thousands more troops were needed if U.S. forces were to succeed in accomplishing the president’s goal. (McChrystal asked for 40,000 troops and Gates supported the number, while also offering an alternative plan of 30,000, plus more allied troops.)

Here is what Gates writes about how thoroughly McChrystal’s request was considered:

On September 13, the president chaired the first of nine—by my count—very long (two-to-three-hour) meetings on McChrystal’s assessment and Afghan strategy. . . . In my entire career, I cannot think of any single issue or problem that absorbed so much of the president’s and the principals’ time and effort in such a compressed period. There was no angle or substantive point that was not thoroughly examined. . . . The president was very deliberative and very analytical, and he was going to take whatever time was necessary to work through this decision.

In general, Gates thought that Obama was a good listener, who welcomed dissenting opinions, and “the most deliberative president” of the eight under whom he served. He was also “first-rate in both intellect and temperament”—Gates himself had earned a Ph.D. from Georgetown. Gates “rarely saw him rush to a decision when circumstances allowed him time to gather information, analyze, and reflect.” Although Obama was sometimes criticized for his “dilatory” decision-making process, Gates “found it refreshing and reassuring, especially since so many pundits and critics seem to think a problem discovered in the morning should be solved by evening.” He added, “When the occasion demanded it, though, Obama could make a big decision—a life-and-death decision—very fast.”

In December 2009 at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama announced that he would send an “additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” but that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” (After reaching a total of about 100,000 troops in 2010, the current total is down to about 32,800, and the president recently announced that although remaining U.S. combat troops would depart by the end of 2014, a residual force of almost 10,000 would remain for training and counterterrorism purposes, but that by the end of 2016 further reductions would leave only a small support force left there.) 

Near the end of his book, Gates sums up his thinking on Afghanistan:

What was clear by fall [2009] was that the alternative paths forward in Afghanistan were either a significant increase in forces or a dramatic scaling back of our presence and our mission . . . . Despite all the arguments I heard then and all the commentary I have read since, I have not seen critics of Obama’s decision spell out precisely what would have been the consequences of standing pat in a losing posture, or the consequences of turning to a quite different strategy with a significantly smaller U.S. military presence. In the latter case, no one has spelled out how that approach would have been able to prevent a Taliban return to power throughout much, if not all, of Afghanistan and the reestablishment of al Qaeda there.

I recount all of this not to justify Gates’s or Obama’s judgments, but merely to point out why both men believed our troops should be there, that they had access to great expertise and considered many different views, that they spent countless hours on the process, and that they are intelligent and caring men. Does that mean they could not have been wrong? No. In his The Best and the Brightest (1972), David Halberstam indicated how other intelligent people like an earlier secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, could be wrong about another war—Vietnam.

What does concern me is the relationship between those in power, who have access to the best intelligence, and all of the rest of us citizens who vent our opinions on the Internet, either as bloggers or commentators on various websites.

Let’s start with why presidents, despite all the expertise they can tap, can be wrong. Simply put, because they act unwisely. Wisdom scholar Robert Sternberg thinks that many “smart and well-educated people” lack wisdom because of too big an ego. In Vietnam, Halberstam believed we were guilty of national egotism, or the “the arrogance of power,” as Senator William Fulbright labelled it. After President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Time columnist Joe Klein wrote: “Bush promised a foreign policy of humility and a domestic policy of compassion. He has given us a foreign policy of arrogance and a domestic policy that is cynical, myopic and cruel.” In Rumsfeld’s Wars: The Arrogance of Power (2008) scholar Dale R. Herspring, a conservative Republican, criticizes President Bush’s first secretary of defense for his arrogance and concluded that “Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the worst U.S. secretaries of defense since the end of World War II.”

Lack of wisdom is also connected to lack of proper values, especially the chief value that should guide all policies—enhancing the common good. Sternberg has written “Wisdom [is] the application of successful intelligence and creativity as mediated by values toward the achievement of a common good.” In Small Is Beautiful, economist/environmentalist E. F. Schumacher bemoaned “the exclusion of wisdom from economics, science, and technology.” He argued that wisdom should be the central ordering principle, the sun whose rays should penetrate and enlighten all aspects of individual and political life.

But if leaders' lack of wisdom and humility can lead to errors, despite all the intelligence at their disposal, so too can our lack of these qualities lead us to undervalue expertise. In HNN editor Rick Shenkman’s Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter (2008), he notes that after World War I journalist Walter Lippmann “recommended that experts . . . be given the responsibility for guiding public opinion.” This, however, did not occur.

In 1980, renowned science fiction writer and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov wrote: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.' ” He noted how politicians such as Alabama’s George Wallace liked to use terms like “pointy-headed professor.” Today right-wing politicians and pundits like to use similar terms to discredit intellectuals and “elitists”—Fox News guru Bill O'Reilly has referred to “pinhead professors.”

Moreover, since 1980 respect for intellectuals and experts has declined even more, partly due to the Internet. Today people rely less on the judgments of scholars or professional critics and more on media personalities, celebrities, popularity ratings, sales, mass media lists, and the Facebook “Like” button. Perhaps our age should be called the Age of Opinions, for never have so many been heard.

Although respect for scientists might not have declined as much as for experts in the arts, a wide gap remains between the 97 percent “of climate scientists [that] agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities” and the 44 percent of U.S. adults that attribute the trends to what we humans have done.

From this brief survey I draw one main conclusion: we all need to be more humble. Access to all sorts of expertise opinion, as presidents possess, may not prevent them from making poor decisions, especially if they are too arrogant. But the vast ignorance that most of us have regarding complicated matters like foreign affairs and the government bailout (following the 2008 financial crisis) should prevent us not necessarily from opining, but from being too sure we are right. Yet most Internet comments—like many of those from the 200 plus people who commented on the New York Times editorial mentioned in the first paragraph above—do not reflect much humility. From humility more tolerance of opposing views and willingness to work together, and thus more effective government, should flow.

We opiners and commentators are like the blind men touching an elephant in the Buddhist fable. They all define an elephant differently depending on which part of it they touched. But like the elephant, reality is much larger than most of us can grasp, and we are wrong to think that it is limited to the small portion we think it is—or can comprehend.

comments powered by Disqus