A prime example is Senate candidate Mehmet Oz. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, was class leader at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, won an award for his research as a resident and, at 35, was saving lives with bypass surgery and heart and lung transplants at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.
In the mid-1990s he was experimenting with unusual mind-body techniques, but only in conjunction with conventional surgery, which he evidently performed with great skill. But as it gained notoriety through the Oprah Winfrey TV show, it turned into peddling questionable weight loss supplements, advocating homeopathy, even suggesting medical use. for astrology.
Perhaps the problem is not so much that the public has become too anti-intellectual to listen to the experts. Perhaps the problem is that some experts have gone rogue – and become even more famous and important for it.
Historian Edward Tenner has taken to calling these rogue experts “alternative authorities” and in a recent essay for the journal Milken wrote about their infiltration into politics, law and various parts of academia.
This is a problem because we need experts. Journalists depend on them to help people understand complex issues, and our legal system relies on expert witnesses to decide important cases and shape policy. But deference to expertise — to authorities in different fields — is a relatively recent development, Tenner said in an interview.
The era of experts as authorities began at the end of the 19th century – during the industrial revolution, he said, when we were entering a new era of scientific authority, using science to make everything better, from industrial chemicals to medicines to food preservation. We have elevated scientific thinking in all endeavours, arranging advanced training and special degrees to certify expertise – in law, medicine, accounting and business. Prior to this, science was practiced primarily by aristocrats, although there were opportunities for non-aristocratic geniuses such as Benjamin Franklin. Specialization was not necessary – it was possible to go through different types of activities without a degree or specialized training.
Over the past few decades, the willingness to rely on experts has risen and fallen. The first downturn occurred in the late 1920s and 1930s, Tenner said. People were disappointed after the sinking of the Titanic, World War I and the Great Depression, which defied famous economists’ predictions of lasting prosperity.
There was another flurry of pro-authority sentiment after World War II, with the nuclear age and the space race, and another lull in the 1970s with Vietnam, Three Mile Island and another downturn. economic. Regarding the Internet era of the 1990s and 2000s, Tenner says people began to choose from a variety of different intellectual authorities in much the same way that religious dissenters in the 16th century began to choose leaders and denominations.
Today, we are witnessing another pendulum swing away from the experts. The response to the pandemic has been ineffective, disorganized and poorly communicated. Authorities told us not to panic, then with little warning closed schools and businesses. Oz says on its website that we were deceived and patronized. “Elites with classes told those without to stay indoors – where the virus was more likely to spread. And the arrogant, closed-minded officials…took away our freedom.
He has a point. While scientists backed the common sense idea that being outdoors was safer, politicians ordered police to keep people away from parks, beaches, playgrounds and jogging trails. Some experts talked overconfidently or pushed patterns that never seemed to accurately predict the next wave. Legitimately difficult compromises were characterized as “following the science,” as if the science only pointed in one direction.
Alternative authorities “are uniquely positioned to capitalize on this skepticism and resentment,” Tenner said. They have the credentials to be taken seriously when they say the mainstream experts are wrong.
How can we avoid descending into chaos and allowing charlatans to keep people away from life-saving vaccines? While it’s tempting to dismiss charlatans out of hand, I think we should instead judge their advice on its merits.
The worst thing you can do, Tenner said, is call people lunatics, quacks, pseudoscientists or conspiracy theorists — even if it’s deserved. This only creates resentment, as people who follow alt-thorites will feel insulted.
And sometimes mainstream medicine allows terrible things – like the Tuskegee experiment and the proliferation of deadly opioids, for example.
Ironically, the most powerful ammunition for Dr. Oz has nothing to do with energy healing or supplement peddling. His enemies denigrated Oz for his traditional medicine-sanctioned research. He oversaw animal research at Columbia University that led to dog deaths. Society’s view of the ethics of animal experimentation is changing and is less tolerated, especially with primates, dogs and cats. Even Oprah now says she would vote for her opponent.
More from this writer at Bloomberg Opinion:
• If you’ve had Covid, watch out for stroke symptoms: Faye Flam
• How to solve the Covid test data problem: Faye Flam
• The CDC must admit its mistakes related to Covid: Faye Flam
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She hosts the “Follow the Science” podcast.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion