Truth and Experts

Sam Reeves, MVC Writer

A journalist’s job is not to know everything, even if their first conviction, hand over heart, is to the truth. As a practical measure, journalists must outsource their study, and lean on others who are better equipped to analyze a complex subject than they are. Experts, unfortunately, are people too, and selecting which experts to lean on is a skill that journalists must develop.
This system, of trained writers and communicators publicizing the message of trained academics and researchers, is relatively new and modern, so it leads to some relatively new and modern problems. Experts often have points of disagreement. This is a common observation, but what gets discussed less is the reasons why experts disagree.
Academic disagreement is the assumed answer, that experts simply have different interpretations of the same basic facts. Experts are fond of this explanation because it does not cost their principles, or their loyalty to the truth. Ironically, this is a lie. Academic disagreement explains many feuds between random professors that nobody has heard of, but for most disagreements between most experts that most people have heard of, their differences are not of interpretation, but of incentive.
The infamous “noble lie” told by Dr. Anthony Fauci on March 8, 2020, that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” is not an example of academic disagreement. In fact, it was not even a disagreement, instead it represents something new, born by the increasing bonds between experts and the public: it is a lie told by incentive.
Experts in academic positions, professors, researchers, stake their livelihoods on not telling lies. Overstating their case for a grant, maybe, but outright misrepresentation of truth is vanishingly rare. Experts in government, business, or media, however, have ample incentive to lie. In Dr. Fauci’s case, he lied because his loyalty to the government was greater than his loyalty to the truth. The government feared a mask shortage, so the government, through its Fauci-shaped vassal, curbed their demand.
Some pundits, loyal to their ideologies, will exploit and amplify the disagreement between experts to construct a theater of uncertainty because of their belief that chaos is a ladder. Ignore them. Competence is worth less than charisma if it appears no experts can cohere with one another, which gives politicians and pundits an in to fill the gaps. I have made the case that experts are not always reliable, but the case should not have to be made that politicians and pundits are rarely reliable. Of course, it would be harder for pundits to do this if journalists did a better job explaining why they choose the experts they choose, but again, I am not a journalist.
None of this is to say that experts are bad or should not be listened to. This is to say, there are many, many experts, and even though I am not a journalist, I value knowing how to discriminate between which ones are not worth listening to. Some obvious ways are looking at where they get their money, how they address issues outside their area of expertise, and how other experts in the same field regard their work.