A Good Leader Is More Than a Mouthpiece for Experts
President Trump is often attacked because he relies on his own judgement and doesn’t always do what current or former government experts insist he should do. And he has a hard call coming up, as economic and health experts may provide conflicting advice about when to start lifting the quarantine on at least some of us so that we can go back to work.
It’s true that a prudent person listens to expert advice because a learned perspective can be informative. But a wise person uses critical reasoning seasoned by generalized knowledge to judge the prudence of expert advice. Consider the expert advice regarding wearing masks in crowded public spaces.
I saw only one person wearing a mask when I was at O’Hare International Airport on March 10 -- and no one was wearing a mask at the airport upon my departure to return to Chicago on March 13. While I was traveling, the government declared a pandemic, Harvard and other universities sent students home, and local schools started to close.
On both of my flights, I sat next to women with antiseptic wipes who graciously wiped down the surfaces around my seat. I offered each of them a mask in return, and each refused with a smile: “Masks don’t protect you -- and may make you more vulnerable, they say.” Each cited expert opinion, as disseminated and endorsed by a major media source.
“That isn’t true” I replied. “Why do doctors wear masks if masks do nothing or even make you more vulnerable?” An awkward silence ensued.
I wasn’t alone in my view that expert advice regarding masks was imprudent. At the first news of this virus, people outside of government started to buy masks out of concern for a pandemic politicians and government experts throughout the world publicly downplayed for weeks. (Even though Trump has been criticized by some for downplaying the threat of the virus early on, he swiftly imposed a China travel ban against the advice of many “experts.") Indeed, on February 29, bureaucrats deep within the General Services Administration actually auctioned (GSAAuctions.gov) two pallets of 3M N95 masks out of a Colorado warehouse for over $50,000 each, which is more than $10.50 per mask and in excess of 10 times the normal market price.
That GSA bureaucrats were selling masks as surplus on February 29, and went ahead with the auction at prices reflecting extraordinary demand for masks, says much about bureaucratic wisdom.
Sure enough, over the last several days, governments around the world have revised their prior guidance and experts who said the opposite last month are now recommending wearing masks in public settings.
“We now know from recent studies … that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity … even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” the CDC advised on April 3. But this same information was known on March 3, when government “experts” were nonetheless asserting that masks were unnecessary and perhaps even dangerous for the public.
Here’s the point: Experts operating in the public arena are not neutral sources of information. Public experts deploy facts and make predictions in support of their policy preferences. In this case, perhaps experts intended to discourage the general public from competing with first responders, hospitals, and doctors for protective devices. Also, the experts were building support for an unprecedented economic shutdown and our current mass quarantine -- and perhaps a dispassionate acknowledgement of other mitigating strategies was inconsistent with that messaging.
Why the change now? Policymakers are looking ahead to an economic restart and the end of the quarantine. The policy focus now is on promoting behaviors and strategies to mitigate the resurgence of the virus after we successfully flatten the curve through our quarantine.
Surely, experts routinely advance in good faith policies that are defensible on some basis rooted in their expertise, and sometimes expert advice is good advice too. But the shifting expert advice in this case highlights how factors other than facts shape what experts say; it is a case study for the larger point that expert advice is an input to, and not a substitute for, critical reasoning and judgement.
It’s true that first responders, doctors, and nurses have the greatest need for high-quality masks, but that isn’t what the experts said in February and March -- they said you didn’t need masks at all and that they might actually hurt you. And folks with many degrees, vast experience, and dignified miens appeared on all major media outlets, asked you to rely on them, and provided advice that does not survive even cursory critical analysis. Do admirable goals, good intentions, and a great background make bad advice good?
Should we do what experts say without critical reasoning, just because they “know better”? “You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson thundered from the witness stand in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men, but his character, an expert at war, was wrong. Uncritical deference to authority is not the basis on which our self-governing republic was founded.
Leaders should listen to experts, but leaders are more than mere mouthpieces for expert advisors. A leader listens, assesses. and then decides; this is what President Trump does every day as challenges unfold. When it comes to lifting the quarantine and restarting the economy, Trump is more than capable of making the decisions necessary to make America great again.
Update: The GSA called and reports that after the auction of masks discussed in the article above publicly closed, GSA refused payment from the winner of the auction, canceled the sale, and the masks were instead donated to HHS (CDC) and DHS (FEMA). In addition to the 12,000 masks in the aforementioned auction, GSA arranged for another 45,000 masks to go to HHS for the national stockpile. A GSA spokesman explained that these surplus supplies were first offered interagency, then to state agencies, then to not-for-profits, and then to the public. Hat tip to GSA for figuring out auctioning masks was a mistake and doing the right thing; too bad state emergency agencies did not have the foresight to grab these masks when they were offered to the states earlier.