Friday, October 27, 2006

Distrusting Experts

Judith Warner has had two recent posts (the first here and the second here) in her New York Times blog, Domestic Disturbances, reporting on studues on overscheduling children. In her second post, she states,

When I first read about Mahoney’s study, in Newsweek and then in the Boston Globe, I slipped the stories into a file folder I’ve kept in my office for some time now, labeled “Meaningless Social Science.” Mostly, it is filled with studies on day care. You know the kind: Day Care Causes Aggression, followed two weeks later by Day Care Causes Tooth Decay, followed two weeks later by Day Care Does Nothing Much at all.

This fall brought a wide variety of new entries: Time magazine had a story on whether TV causes autism, while Child had one saying that – contrary to popular belief – TV doesn’t cause attention deficit disorder. The American Educator had an interview with a cognitive scientist debunking everything other scientists have told us is true about left/right and girl/boy brain-based learning styles.

Reading these stories together, and bearing in mind all the contradictory “scientific” studies I have read over time about all kinds of aspects of childhood, motherhood and the interaction of the two, I thought: all these earnest, tightly structured, controlled, peer-reviewed, gleamingly scientific studies don’t have much meaning. Not individually, not reliably, for what they say (or dispute) about TV or A.D.D. or boy/girl cognition or after-school activities.

One commenter to her blog also made a sneering reference to "experts." Since, I guess I'm an expert, I take offense to all this.

It bothers me that the term "expert" has become a synonym for "fool." There has always been an anti-intellectual trend in America, and attacks on expertise (and, by extension, scientists) are a classic part of anti-intellectualism. These attacks seem to become particularly nasty during political eras dominated by demagogues. The McCarthy era of the 1950's was one example. Today is most certainly another. Why? That brings me to my main point.

In one sentence: Reality is not simple. Experts know this; most people don't want to believe it. They want good and bad to be be clear. If you do these things, you're a good parent; if you do this you're a bad parent. We are the good guys; they are the bad guys. My religion is good; your religion is bad. Demagogues play on this desire for simplicity. Unfortunately, if social science has taught us anything, it's that almost everything is open to qualification.

For example, we all agree that divorce is undesirable. Right-wing demagogues often decry the high divorce rate and declare that we have to go back to the good old days and make divorce harder. That way, people will just stay in their marriages, work harder at them, and everything will be fine. A nice, simple solution. But then the scientist says,

"Wait a minute. That nice simple solution won't work. Marriages are more complicated than that." Then the research starts to unfold, yielding complicated, conflicting results, raising more complicated questions:

Yes, children from divorced families are often more depressed and anxious than children from intact households. Hey, but some children do better after divorce when there's a lot of conflict prior to the divorce. But, wait a minute, how do you define conflict? How much is too much conflict? How about the ages of the children at the time of the divorce, how does that affect how well they do? And don't forget about the socioeconomic status of the parents.

All of this challenges the nice, tidy solution of the demagogue. So, it's not surprising that demagogues attack expertise. Today, they have so many outlets on radio, television, and the internet, that their ideas have wide distribution, and it's hard not to be influenced by it. But if you distrust experts, ask yourself this: Who do you want to design a bridge? Who do you want to operate on your heart? Who do you turn to if you're getting depressed?

In the social sciences, experts can inform and make recommendations about social policy and about personal choices. The data is always sloppy and conflicting because research is conducted at the fringes of our knowlege. The perfect answer is never clear. People read stories about the conflicting research in magazines and newspapers and become confused. How does one decide what to do when the experts don't know? This is when they often turn to demagogues and anti-intellectualism. But, those answers are the worst answers.

My answer to this problem is simple: Consider the data. Look in your heart. Then make the best decision you can. That's good enough.

1 comment:

joan said...

While I understand what you are saying about life being more complicated...part of the reason that experts are distrusted is that there is so much contradictory evidence out there AND because some experts are being PAID by various industries to promote various products..Even the recent story about the Harvard researchers earning millions from drug companies shows that some of our best institutions are not immunce to the call or money...