The two ways to diss expertise

Public policy’s basis in good research threatened

As a supporter of the historical project in favor of rationality called the Enlightenment and as a trained social scientist, one endeavor seems to be an unqualifed good:

Well-done research by people who know their subjects and know proper research design and technique.

Unfortunately, it’s been under attack and it turns out there’s more than one way to do it.

Yes, there’s two main ways to diss expertise: 

1. You can claim that organizations that are highly respected should not be respected. 

That’s Newt Gingrich’s approach.

As Bruce Bartlett, a former policy advisor for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and former staffer for Rep. Ron Paul and Jack Kemp wrote:

On Nov. 21, Newt Gingrich, who is leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination in some polls, attacked the Congressional Budget Office. In a speech in New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich said the C.B.O. “is a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation and does not believe in data that it has not internally generated.”

Mr. Gingrich’s charge is complete nonsense. The former C.B.O. director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, now a Republican policy adviser, labeled the description “ludicrous.” Most policy analysts from both sides of the aisle would say the C.B.O. is one of the very few analytical institutions left in government that one can trust implicitly.

2. You can claim that badly done studies with highly flawed methodology deserve respect and attention.

As David Frum, the George B. Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” wrote, this approach has become far too common among conservatives:

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. 

The consequences of both are troubling.

Instead of trying to find out what policy approaches actually work, ideology rules and guides what is dismissed and what is accepted.

To solve our problems, to govern together, both ways of dissing expertise should be repudiated and replaced with a fuller and wider understanding of knowledge of how to evaluate claims and evidence.

While this is somewhat utopian, it is possible to turn away from where we are and set out anew. But it will require some incentivizing, some carrots and sticks, to be applied those doing good and bad research.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the press should be a part of this. For journalists to play this role, they need to “increase their knowledge of proper research practices and communicate this to readers.” 

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.