...Archive for April 2020

Expertise, interest, and community colleges

Perhaps the thorniest metaproblem modern societies face is the fact that expertise and interest are deeply entangled. On the one hand, the scale, scope, and technological sophistication of modern societies mean that it is absolutely essential that we develop, train, and rely upon highly specialized forms of expertise that will not be widely accessible to the layman. On the other hand, the fact that such expertise tends not to be uniformly distributed within political communities, but becomes concentrated in groups whose particular interests may diverge quite widely from those of other communities in their polities, creates a problem. Experts are human. Even when they have the best of intentions, human beings often mistake virtues for the tangible communities in which they and their neighbors and coworkers and children mingle as virtues for the polity as a whole. When they are less well intentioned, or less self critical, experts and the professional associations they organize provide advice quite directly inflected by self interest. Experts. We’ve got to trust them, but we can’t trust them. There is no perfect solution to this. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done.

We in the United States have been swinging between the poles of this dilemma like a pendulum undergoing an exorcism. Our experience this millennium through 2016 was one of justifiable disillusionment with technocracy. The 2008 financial crisis, and the policy response to that crisis, taught many of us to be skeptical of expert opinion. The seeds of the crisis were planted by experts, by technically sophisticated financial professionals who allowed themselves to overlook the caveats and assumptions of their own models when going full speed ahead seemed in the interest of their careers. The field was then fertilized by boosterism on the part policy and academic intellectuals. The “wonks” revised regulations to make ever more dangerous practices permissible, while academics, at least in the most prestigious precincts of economics and finance, tacitly accepted or openly declared the new finance sound. Finally, when it all broke down, the starkest dilemma imaginable between interest and expertise emerged: The people who best understood the collapsing system, arguably the only people who understood it with sufficient institutional color to get the details right, were the experts who had built it, whose careers and financial interests were directly bound up in it. Unsurprisingly, the solution that emerged from tapping this expertise — the absolutely necessary only path to save the world! — turned out to be quite gentle on banks and professionals and the creditor class generally, but not quite so gentle for debtors and ordinary workers. Technocracy discredited itself. So we elected a guy who seemed like kryptonite to technocrats.

Now we are learning the opposite lesson. If tapping bankers to resolve a financial crisis pits the need to rely upon experts against concerns over conflicts of interest, tapping epidemiologists to forestall (too late!) or manage a pandemic implicates almost no such concern. With narrow (though sometimes wealthy and influential) exceptions, the interests of a political community are unusually aligned in the face of a contagious disease. Anyone can catch it, anyone who catches it could suffer or become disabled or die, anyone who catches it increases the danger for everybody else. Yes, there are gradations of risk between young and old, healthy and less healthy, as well as, shamefully, rich and poor, black and white. But almost everyone faces meaningful direct risks. And the knock-on effects of an uncontrolled pandemic, the ruin of a society and an economy the event might leave behind, would be experienced almost universally. Plutocrats on yachts might exempt themselves, but not your upper middle class scientist. If ever there was a crisis in which “trust the experts” should be safe advice, it’s this one. But we elected a guy who knows better by knowing nothing at all, and we are finding elections do have consequences.

We need to create better options for ourselves than a choice between Larry Summers or Donald Trump. Unchecked technocrats often do become untrustworthy mandarins who govern, with or without the best of intentions, in ways that benefit the communities of their own experience, and maybe the fashionably disadvantaged, while offloading costs to communities that do not attract their notice. Know-nothings govern to the benefit of almost no one, except perhaps their own cronies and a part of their political base to whom they can redirect some spoils from the shrinking pie. One solution, advocated by John Dewey, is better, more widespread education. From an excellent summary by Josh Braun (ht Helen De Cruz):

Thus the specialization and abstraction that have entered into science and industry serve the elite at the expense of the populus. Dewey insists that until the fruits of science and elite knowledge can be made accessible to the layperson, the public will remain eclipsed and alienated, while the elite will continue their rule. Thus, improved education and communication are necessary if specialized knowledge is to be opened to the masses and the public thereby emancipated. Until such time as this improved communication is available, democracy, in its ideal form, cannot exist. And until ideas and modes of governance are road-tested through social experimentation in everyday life, for and by the public, our knowledge of how best to regulate the populus cannot increase, and scientific ideas cannot serve the common good.

It has become a bromide, among the educated classes, that if only the public were better educated, we could have an effective democracy. I am increasingly skeptical of this idea. I think it forgivable of Dewey writing in 1927, but the scope of expertise required to manage a modern society has expanded dramatically since then. Citizens generally would have to become freakish polymaths in order to be able to police the range of options offered by experts, to distinguish proposals that would serve the public interest from proposals that purport to serve the public interest but under cover of technical legerdemain are skewed to benefit parochial interests. It just isn’t plausible. Experts need to train, for years. We cannot all train in everything.

What is plausible, however, is to counter the tendency of expertise to coalesce into narrow and segregated communities. We can’t make every citizen an expert in everything, but we can put experts in everything directly in every citizen’s community. Whether you live in Boston, in Buffalo, or in Bismarck, North Dakota, you should know an epidemiologist, or at least someone you know should know an epidemiologist. Whether you are part of an upscale community or a poor community, a black community or a white community, an urban community or a rural community, there should be people in and of your community — people you go to church with, or parents of your kids’ classmates — who do have the expertise, who don’t share the interests of a banker on Wall Street or a professor at Harvard, whose fortunes and interests are aligned and entangled with your own.

It is common these days to talk about the importance of “representation of diverse communities”. Usually that conversation is about who sits in the top tiers of our miserably polarized and hierarchical society. It’s important, we say, that women, people of color, LGBT people be represented in the halls of political power, among the tech engineers who increasingly shape our lives, on corporate boardrooms. And it is important, as far as that goes, as long as we retain such a miserably polarized and hierarchical society.

But this approach makes representatives of emigrants from our communities. We can only hope that they don’t entirely “go native”, that they remember their roots enough to make a difference for the people they represent but whose interests they share less and less. A different approach might be to insist the institutions that rule us — including, necessarily, technocratic expertise — be composed of representatives who remain in and of our diverse communities, who do not migrate and segregate into new communities whose interests inevitably diverge from our own. That would improve the quality of policy advice, as a broader community of experts would be less likely to mistake a parochial interest for the general interest. It would improve the quality of democracy, as citizens would have direct, unmediated humans that they know and trust to rely upon as a check against what they hear from distant experts via also not-necessarily-trustworthy media.

Perhaps the most underestimated institution of contemporary American life is the community college. Community colleges are aptly named. They are the only class of higher-ed institutions that truly devote themselves to service of their communities. Teaching happens at all colleges and universities. But at major universities, the incentives and prestige skew towards research. Teaching is an activity complementary to research, it helps develop ideas, and from a faculty perspective that is its main saving grace. Academic careers are not made by taking underprepared students and leaving them without great mastery, but still farther along than before. Small liberal arts colleges are all about teaching, but teaching students that are already excellent. The incentives there are to produce academically or professionally outstanding alums. But most human beings, the people we today are relying upon to clerk grocery stores and deliver Amazon packages, pack meat and drive trucks, will never be academically or professionally outstanding, even though each of them will be outstanding in their own ways, among their own families, friends, and coworkers. Community colleges take all comers, from the communities they serve, to help each student meet their own personal goals, and to build more educated local communities, across professional lines. Their success is not measured by the fraction of those students who go on to Harvard. On the contrary, most will stay close by.

Traditionally, the functions of a university are supposed to be teaching, research, and community service. Liberal arts colleges devote themselves primarily to teaching, but teaching the few. Major universities devote themselves primarily to research, with teaching as an important complement and source of public support. Community colleges devote themselves to community service, via teaching. I think we should dramatically expand the role of community colleges. There should be many more of them. They should continue to serve communities by teaching all comers, but they should go beyond that. They should embrace a much broader community service role. For communities everywhere, they should serve as very local repositories of the technocratic expertise by which the world must increasingly be ruled. Their faculties should be expanded dramatically, along lines that would not be determined solely be instructional demand. The local community college should have an epidemiologist, and a financial economist, and representatives of many other disciplines, regardless of whether students fill out a full schedule of classes for them. They should be there, because the community and its citizens require the expertise of people trained in those professions in order to participate in our democracy, and it requires those people remain independent of the roles they might have if they were employed by other organizations in their communities. You want an expert who is not employed by a bank advising citizens on the latest finreg proposal. You want an epidemiologist who can’t be muzzled or fired by the governor if she disagrees with the governor’s approach to a pandemic. These professors should be evaluated in part on their quality as teachers. But coequally, they should be evaluated on their devotion to and entanglement with the local community. Holding events to inform the general public, joining schmoozefests where citizens and politicians mingle, responding to e-mails and phone calls, accepting visits from the mom concerned about 5G radiation or the kid who found a bug he hopes has never been discovered, these things would all be part of the job. When matters of broad public concern are discussed in the community, these faculty would be expected to provide a fair account of their profession’s current view, both where there is consensus and where there is controversy, as well as weigh in with their own perspective if they wish. They would not be expected to contribute new primary research. But they could and should contribute to the research process, participating in public conversation with letters and commentary, and especially via peer review.

The existing peer review process often involves farming papers from a narrow specialist community to highly regarded other members of that specialist community. There are lots of problems with that. Groupthink can permit a body of work to go too long unchallenged, as researchers who share too similar assumptions evaluate one another. (This has been a big problem in economics.) “Blind” peer review is often not blind within a specialist community, because researchers can easily figure out whose work they are commenting on, so personal alliances or rivalries can seep into the process. Asking high prestige researchers outside of authors’ specialist community to review papers seems like a poor use of those researchers’ time, as they would have to bring themselves up to speed on the work while facing large opportunity costs within their own specializations. A cadre of faculty whose role is to stay abreast of their disciplines, and stay epistemologically in touch with the broad political community, would provide a useful complement to specialist peer review. It could not replace existing practice: only specialists can evaluate the details of other specialists work. But an inside/outside perspective can provide a sanity check where groupthink might be emerging, can bring in outside strands that narrow specialists might miss, and can help improve the accessibility of scientists’ work both within their disciples and to broader publics by pointing out where things seem unclear even to highly informed nonspecialists. Peer review roles for community scientists would both improve the quality of science, and would help ensure that the bridge these people are meant to provide between our communities and continually evolving disciplines is not too easily severed by time.

The fact that expertise and interest are usually entangled is a huge problem for the governance of contemporary societies. Our policy response to the 2008 financial crisis was, in my view, clearly deformed by this entanglement, and the sociopolitical consequences of that have been devastating. During the current pandemic, our failure to establish widespread roots for trust in expertise where expertise is in fact trustworthy has caused a mass fatality. Perhaps my proposal, an expanded role for community scientists at more local and ubiquitous community colleges, is a good way to address this problem. Perhaps you can think of better ways.

But we had better figure this out.