With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, many (for example, Phil Lagasse) have written about the role of experts in public life. The controversy seems to centre around a few points of contention: (1) the degree to which quintessentially political decisions should depend on expert guidance (2) the degree to which the public can and should criticize experts in the midst of a public health dilemma; and (3) the degree to which politicians should or do use experts as the public face of political initiatives.
COVID-19 is an apt phenomenon through which to analyze the role of experts in public life. The pandemic is a health crisis at its core, which invites the contribution of public health officials, doctors, and other experts. At the same time, the health crisis is interwoven with decisions of a political nature: what sorts of programs will best ameliorate the economic strife that many are facing, when and how to “re-open” the economy, and what are the rules that should govern how people interact with one another during the pandemic? In turn, those questions raise this one: what is the proper province of the experts?
Finding this line is no easy task. But there are, at the very least, a number of important considerations we should keep in mind as we try to find the proper approach to dealing with expertise in public life.
First, we should remember that speaking generally of expertise can belie the complications associated with applying expertise to particular problems. That is, we have to be clear about what sort of expertise we are speaking about. Expertise in public health or epidemiology is not expertise in public policy or program delivery and evaluation. We are familiar with this phenomenon in the law of judicial review. For some time, the Supreme Court presumed that administrative decision-makers in government were “experts” on all matters that came before them (see Edmonton East). But this was always a logically faulty assumption. There was never any evidence offered that experts in government policy—for example, in deciding whether someone is eligible for a certain benefit—ever translated into, say, legal expertise in interpreting statutes or the Constitution. So we must be clear about what sort of “expertise” we are speaking of when we judge the role of experts. Usually, it is not expertise in all things; but rather, it is expertise in some narrow, technical area. And so long as the expert remains confined to that specialized area, there is no reason to worry about over-extending expertise as a concept.
This is not to undermine the importance of expertise in technical areas. Expertise in epidemiology, it turns out, is incredibly important at this time. But once we have narrowed down the scope of an expert’s particular knowledge, it becomes incumbent on the expert to demonstrate that her expertise somehow translates into some other field.
Secondly, and relatedly, using experts to make judgments that affect all of society could lead to certain pathologies. I am often reminded, these days, of Harold Laski’s famous piece “The Limitations of the Expert” (see also Professor Daly’s post here). In the piece, Laski outlines a number of pathologies associated with expertise, all of which are relevant today. For one, experts, even in their own fields, may “tend to neglect all evidence which does not come from those who belong to their own ranks” . More generally, in relation to other fields, experts cannot claim finality for their views because “[e]very expert’s conclusion is a philosophy of the second best until it has been examined in terms of a scheme of values not special to the subject matter of which he is an exponent” . That is, expertise itself in a technical area cannot be the sole means by which social problems are solved, particularly problems that are evasive of empirical analysis. Sometimes—most times—political judgment about social values or norms is required to round out an expert’s rather narrow or technical focus.
Deeper pathologies that affect the fundamental values of our constitutional order may run together with expertise. In an interesting study of the nature of expertise in decision-making, Sidney Shapiro argues: “A central reason why critical inquiry over expert decisions is necessary is that the expert rarely factors democratic liberal values into her decisions. Expertise tends to be narrowly focused and highly specialized, and the expert does not make her judgments in light of democratic liberal values” . Put differently, experts can tend to focus on their own narrow area of expertise without considering broader social norms or legal values. Health officials may suggest a particular response that maximizes health outcomes, but that does not take into account other constitutional or legal values. The two are not necessarily co-extensive, given the constitutional challenges that exist in respect of the COVID-19 response.
Third, the public has a role in evaluating the evidence, justifications, and reasoning underlying expert decisions. As Shapiro aptly notes, some “[d]ecisions within government institutions often occur within the shadows, concealed from public view” . This reality has two takeaways. First, experts should not be considered to be cloistered servants away from public scrutiny. If experts are indeed central to decision-making, those responsible for decisions should offer the public a chance to scrutinize the assumptions and reasoning underlying particular decisions. This is all a function of the theory, endorsed in Vavilov, of a “culture of justification” for administrative decision-makers in which the legitimacy of a particular decision depends on the way in which it is justified to the public. Secondly, to this end, the public should not shy away from criticizing the approach of experts when it does not jibe with common sense or experience. The public can legitimately ask, through their representatives, whether the World Health Organization adequately discharged its mandate in protecting the public; whether politicians were right to not close the border at the outset, based on expert judgment; and whether Dr. Theresa Tam’s about-face on masks was justified. These are all areas in which the public can play a role.
Finally, overreliance or trust in experts risks deflecting political responsibility. This is a point made by Lagasse in his piece. In our system, the COVID response will be judged in political terms by the electorate at the next election(s). But if politicians stand behind experts, allowing them full rein to craft policy (and/or take responsibility for it), there is a risk that this responsibility can be deflected onto the experts. This is a worry that should be constantly guarded against. As Laski notes, experts should be on tap, but not on top. Putting them on top—allowing them to lead the charge, rather than take an assisting role in the public health crisis—undermines democratic accountability.
These are some rough-and-ready considerations to keep in mind as we think through the role of experts in this public health crisis.