Cheap Talk and Expertise

In today’s Manichean political world, coronavirus policy disputes often get portrayed as a conflict between scientific expertise, on the one hand, and invincible ignorance on the other. This is yet another variation of the riff we heard earlier on global warming, vaccinations, and more. While journalistically tidy, dividing the world into objective, dispassionate experts versus the anti-scientific horde not only ignores what motivates public skepticism, it actually contributes to the difficulty of leveraging expertise to address policy problems. The irony is that less would be more: A little more humility regarding the domain of scientific expertise would enhance the policy authority of experts rather than detract from it.

Science is most ill-served by its ostensible friends who declaim its authority the loudest. Most of the public gets little exposure to science beyond a smattering in elementary school and high school, and introductory surveys in college. Here, however, particularly in the lower grades, science is often communicated as a fixed set of unquestionably authoritative facts, with scientists presented as members of an all-but magical authoritative clerisy. Even when science is taught as a process of investigation and knowing, the process is explained as a formalistic recipe of steps to follow.

Yet as a process of knowing, the scientific enterprise is, in principle, both epistemologically democratic and epistemologically conservative. The insistence of science on “replicability” means that scientific conclusions are open to all. To be sure, this is often true only in principle. Specialized language often develops as a necessary shortcut, and, as a result, scientific writing can be quite technical. Further, empirical tests can be costly and difficult to replicate. Nonetheless, science is in fact not a form of secret knowledge; it is open to all willing and able to understand the language.

So, too, canonical scientific investigation is epistemologically conservative. Empirical results must not only be replicable, they must be demonstrated, as it were, beyond a reasonable doubt. This is usually a level of statistical significance at the 95 percent level. This canonical approach, however, requires access to data in sufficient quantities, and of sufficient quality, to control adequately for relevant independent variables and still generate statistically significant results. This is often a demanding standard to meet, both theoretically and empirically.

Beyond the actual openness of science to democratic deliberation, however, very practical problems understandably arise regarding public recognition of expertise in modern policy debates. Public skepticism is not merely a matter of doubting the usefulness of the scientific method. While “science” is often presented as a self-executing discipline that describes a raw, objective world outside the realm of human judgment, it is nonetheless performed and communicated by humans. And here, as in other areas of life, expertise necessarily reflects human temptations and constraints.

One can fully grant the existence and usefulness of experts and expertise, yet also recognize from whence skepticism can derive. The problem is this: while credentialing experts solves one “cheap talk” problem, it creates another, less recognized cheap talk problem. It’s the latter from whence skepticism derives.

Nobel prize winning economist Michael Spence famously accounted for the way costly investment in credentials—in expertise—can solve the problem of cheap-talk. I provide an example below because the formal definition of cheap talk in game theory is more subtle than it sounds. “Cheap talk” is canonically defined as “communication between players that does not directly affect the payoffs of the game.” The problem exists when people with different capabilities or expertise send the same “message”—or “pool” on the same message. While cheap talk can often credibly transmit information between people, a problem exists when interests are directly adverse—as between, say, a buyer and a seller.

For example, in Spence’s original article, the central example is an employer who wants to hire high capability individuals rather than hire low capability individuals. The individuals themselves know whether they are high or low capability, but the employer does not. If the employer asks, “Are you a high capability or low capability person?” all of the applicants will say, “I am a high capability person” no matter what type they actually are.

The solution to this problem in Spence’s article is educational credentialing. That is, high capability workers can invest in generating a “credential” through what we call “education.” The cost of obtaining this credential is lower for high capability individuals than for low capability individuals, so high capability individuals will invest in the credential, low capability individuals will not. Observing whether an applicant holds the credential thereby allows the employer credibly to know whether the applicant is a high- or low-capability applicant, and then hire appropriately. (Controversially, this account of the educational process does not require that “education” actually add to a person’s human capital; education can be purely a credentialing mechanism.)

Real-life examples abound. Teachers, for example, know that every student who comes in to discuss a low grade on a test will say that he or she studied hard for the exam. Undoubtedly some students did, and performed poorly nonetheless. Undoubtedly, however, other students did not study hard, notwithstanding the message to the instructor that they did study hard. All students “pool” on the message, “I studied hard,” irrespective of whether they did or not.

This pooling creates a problem for the hard-working (but still poorly performing) student. Because the “I-studied-hard” message of the slacking students “pools” with the message of the non-slacking students, instructors cannot easily tell them apart. As a result, instructors discount the likely truthfulness of the “I-studied-hard” message of non-slacking students who are in fact telling the truth.

So, too, with people claiming to be experts. If we ask almost anyone proffering an ostensibly expert opinion whether they actually know what they are talking about, the vast majority will say “yes.” For many that message will be accurate. For others, however, it will not be accurate. As in the Spence signaling model, one solution to this problem is to require that putative experts invest in a costly credential—usually a doctorate in modern times—to separate those who are truly expert in an area from those who are not.

This dualism into “expert” and “non-expert,” however, results in a less-recognized secondary cheap talk problem. When one holds the credential of “expert,” the temptation exists to claim the mantle of expertise even when one opines on matters outside one’s domain of expertise, or on a matter which does not really admit an expert answer.

Experts exist, and expert opinion merits due deference. But expert overreach—either on their own account, or as a result of allowing the media to paint expert insights in bolder colors than the science actually merits—carries with it its own cost.

The public often senses something isn’t exactly right, but with the simplistic dualism of “expert or nonexpert,” the public often has difficulty articulating their skepticism without seeming to be attacking the idea of expertise itself. This invites the response that skeptics are “anti-science” when they are in fact responding to the possibility of overreach of experts as a group.

Here are two temptations experts face to speak beyond their expertise and so to invite the non-expert public to discount their messages.

The first is the experts’ fear that if they communicate scientific results with all the modesty of the scientific process properly understood that the public and policy makers will be insufficiently motivated to take action the expert believes is necessary. That is, the expert believes it necessary to present the issue in bold black and whites, rather than in more accurate hues of gray, in order to gin up what the expert believes is a necessary policy response.

While perhaps an understandable temptation, this is simply a higher-order version of the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” If the habitual message is “we are on the very precipice of disaster,” and yet disaster does not occur, the public learns to discount the message despite the fact that the expert is a real expert and there is likely some policy problem that needs to be addressed.

Experts must realize that drawing policy problems in striking black-and-white clarity, a clarity their evidence does not in fact support, does not in fact help their immediate cause. Rather, it invites broader discounting of expert messages in other policy domains as well. Further, with the dualism of “expert” and “non-expert,” overreach by some experts nonetheless influences the reputation of even the more careful expert.

A related problem is that journalists often consider it their responsibility to present issues clearly and strikingly to their readers. Eliminating weasel words is an all-but-required discipline for editorial pages. This in essence requires that experts punt acknowledging the conditionality and hedging inherent in accurately communicating scientific results.

Generalizing beyond the early data carries with it costs in both the short term and the long term. Not because of ignorant restiveness in the American public, but because the experts themselves trained Americans to be overly skeptical that the experts actually understood what was going on. This is, for example, the problem with the “masking” message in the pandemic. Communication of the black and white “wear a mask” message today contrasts sharply with the black and white “do not wear a mask” message of earlier in the pandemic. The irony is that a more tepid message regarding not wearing masks earlier in the pandemic could very well have resulted in greater openness among the public to masking mandates today.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly for policy debates, experts often are tempted to take advantage of their designation as “experts” in trying to extend their authority beyond the science. In doing so they attempt to claim authority for their personal value judgments that those judgments do not warrant.

Epidemiology, for example, is without doubt a real expertise. A part of this expertise undoubtedly includes recommendations on what may tend to mitigate the risk of infection. But just as there is a range of behavior that may mitigate the risk of infection, so, too, there is also a range of costs to different mitigation strategies. While expertise informs the public of the choices available, the actual choice of the tradeoff between expected benefits and expected costs is a value judgment, it is not a matter of expertise. While experts can certainly hold their own opinions as to how they would balance different policy benefits and costs, that opinion does not derive from their expertise. Indeed, given that experts often choose domains in which they are passionately interested, experts are often tempted to overemphasize the significance of their own domain of expertise relative to other equally significant dimensions of life.

Much of the American public’s current skepticism towards expert opinion does not derive from their belief that these experts are not truly experts. Rather it derives from the belief that experts are abusing the deference their expertise is due. The skepticism derives because of the suspicion that experts are trussing up fully debatable value judgments as authoritative expert opinions.

Experts exist, and expert opinion merits due deference. But expert overreach—either on their own account, or as a result of allowing the media to paint expert insights in bolder colors than the science actually merits—carries with it its own cost. To be sure, there may be a portion of the American public who resist any recognition of expertise. But experts also must recognize that their own actions, and that of their ostensible friends, has itself invited much of the skepticism now being manifested by the American public toward expert opinion.

Reader Discussion

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on August 18, 2020 at 09:39:31 am

A wise, apt, and beautifully written essay, but typical of Professor Rogers, who is always worth reading.

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Max O Hocutt
on August 18, 2020 at 10:01:27 am

A fine and necessary essay that was perhaps a little too long. Provided a good discussion of science and proper scientific attitudes in the beginning, bogged down on the discussion of credentialing, and was not quite as crisp at the end as might have been desired. In fact, presenting just the last four paragraphs might have sufficed in total.

And the topic of journalistic honesty deserves a complete essay on its own. "A related problem is that journalists often consider it their responsibility to present issues clearly and strikingly to their readers. Eliminating weasel words is an all-but-required discipline for editorial pages. This in essence requires that experts punt acknowledging the conditionality and hedging inherent in accurately communicating scientific results." My first thought here was that providing the required qualifying and conditional language is exactly what should appear on the editorial page to supply context and an improved approximation to "truth". And then I realized that should apply to the news articles, too. Not all essayists or journalists are equally skilled, nor equally motivated to present the truth, but more of them might benefit from reviewing some of the solid material from Amy Wax or Heather McDonald as models to emulate.

As an aside, I have long thought that there must be a special journalism class where they are taught how to present the same basic information using different measures of quantification, thereby making decent apples to apples comparisons impossible or difficult to ascertain. We end up with a real fruit basket of relative and absolute parameters ("yesterday the results were 4%, but today they are 77 units and $1,400"). It is almost as if they are being trained to obfuscate rather than elucidate. Throw in ignorance and willful bias on top of that and we now have today's MSM, as well as "the squad", BLM, and over reaching "experts".

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on August 18, 2020 at 11:26:54 am

An interesting and informative response, but I found it a tad too long.

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Rob Matthews
on August 18, 2020 at 10:28:58 am

Start with bias of experts. Add the motivation to use sensationalism by journalists. Add paranoia and cupidity of politicians and some cherry picking of experts. Throw in profit taking by capitalists. Mix in bureaucratic foul-ups, mismanagement and overreach. Swirl it all up with internet gossip. Present the results of that to the easily misled public. What could possibly go wrong?

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Scott Amorian
on August 18, 2020 at 12:01:43 pm

HaHa! Vey good overview by Scott Amorian of what the experts have wrought.

I would add to the horribles, intended miseries and unintended consequences in Amorian's "Parade of the Experts" (play Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Procession of Nobles" as you read) the bureaucrats' road to regulatory serfdom paved with the experts' macadam of climate change science, the onset of the Second Cold War made possible by the hubris and greed of the experts who won the First Cold War, Red China's expert weaponization of viruses against which there is no future American defense except the expert threat of assured mutual biological destruction; Jacobin social-science experts with their critical race theory, their "Summer of Love" and their reparations-without-end Amen; wave-upon-wave of attempted coup d'etat by police state experts; a demented Democrat for president, the inspiration for which is "based on real events" ( the film, "Weekend With Bernie,") and modern media/ propaganda expertise in how to win an election while never leaving your basement; and the dawn of the experts' age of error-free voting, mail-in ballots, "a drunkards dream, if I ever did see one."

Just like up on Cripple Creek in the Sixties when all this cold decline and hard fall officially began, in the warm glow of hash, hallucinogens and love.

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on August 18, 2020 at 13:05:37 pm

Every time I read of "experts", I am reminded of the first time I encountered its (initial) widespread use. A local television station in NYCity, WABC Eyewitness News began referring to its reporters as "experts'. "Here is our Foreign Policy Expert." or "here is our Crime Expert", etc etc.
I enquired as to the basis of this alleged expertise. after some digging, it became clear that "Expert" in the journalistic profession amounted to no more than a "higher Job Classification" awarded to those who had covered the field for some short time. absent any serious study of the "experts" field, one must wonder whether "seniority" is sufficient in itself to warrant a designation of "expert."
Indeed, in the case of Governmental Experts, one may (successfully and quite often) argue that that very seniority may diminish whatever expertise one may initially have possessed and after willfully substituting independent thinking for the "institutional" (and, perhaps, political) interests / objectives of the department / agency in which the expert resides.
Yep, "expert" has become a Job Classification albeit one signifying rising status within the new Clerisy of the Admin State.
Geraldo Rivera, an employee of Eyewitness News was a pacesetter after all.
Now that really sums it up!

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on August 18, 2020 at 13:55:21 pm

What with the political dangers of climate change scientism and, now, the China Virus diktat we risk the rise of an oligarchy of experts, bureaucratic rule by oligarchs who are either overly-dependent on science or who abuse science for political power. CS Lewis wrote about it in a 1958 essay, "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State."

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on August 18, 2020 at 14:39:40 pm

I think that this is a thoughtful and useful piece by Professor Rogers, but would add the following thoughts:

1. Bias. This was mentioned by Scott Amorian, and should not be discounted when assessing the performance of experts. Bias exists not only to the methods, conclusions, and ultimately opinions of experts, but also in how they convey these opinions. Furthermore, when the public is reliant on journalists or other interpreters of expert opinion another layer of bias is injected into the relevant subject. This is often suggested by the choice of modifiers used to describe an expert's opinion, with a common example being the words "bold," "groundbreaking," or "controversial." These descriptions may apply to the exact same statement or expert opinion depending on the preferences of the reporter.

2. Limits. Just because an expert knows more than anyone else does not mean he knows everything, or even that he knows enough to give a useful opinion. Dr. Fauci, for example, whose photo graces the accompanying essay, seems to have long ago reached the limits of his knowledge, and even the most sympathetic observer can sense a measure of ad libbing in his continued pronouncements. The degree of expertise that he has regarding viral epidemiology, beyond that of the average educated adult, frankly does not seem to have been very helpful.

3. Science. Professor Roger's essay makes repeated reference to science-related ideas in his essay, and the current idea of "expertise" assumes a sense of scientific rigor. This is often unjustified. Some disciplines that are congenial to expert meddling in policy decisions are not hospitable to scientific methods, particularly the misleadingly named social sciences. When Professor Rogers mentions public skepticism, it should be remembered that skepticism is inherent in scientific reasoning. It is the reason why falsifiability is an essential characteristic of experiments and scientific studies. When experts opine on non-falsifiable issues, they assume the role occupied by witch doctors in other cultures.

4. Celebrity. The caricature of science that is present in much of today's expert discourse leads to the peculiar phenomenon of the media and popular culture treating as expert opinion the proclamations of people whose credentials derive from cultural prominence rather than intellectual accomplishment. The obvious examples are Greta Thunberg, Bill Nye and Robin D'Angelo, and includes any number of grifters, activists, and charlatans declaiming on climate change, sexual identity, structural racism, green energy, new monetary theory, etc. What nearly all of these people have in common, is that they present themselves as experts, as above, with regard to ideas and theories that are non-falsifiable. The results are frequently disastrous, leading to such travesties as the "recovered memories" scam, "whiteness," the theories that treat sex chromosomes as irrelevant, etc.

5. Ideology. Pseudo-experts are dangerous when taken seriously and allowed to tinker with institutions. Further damage is inflicted by social workers and educators who pretend that there is a social ideal that benefits from their intervention, regardless of the predictable harms caused. Not only are the theories not scientific, the people who express them are generally not experts in any objective discipline. The authority of these activists comes not from insight and knowledge, but by fetishizing dubious data and their own sense of importance. An ideological "expert" is almost always an ideologue first. This unhelpful characteristic leads to the politicization of "expertise" which in predictable fashion leads to the pseudoscientific calamities of Nazi race theory, the Chinese one child policy, lobotomies for behavior modification, sterilization of undesirables, and so on.

6. Liberty. This is a subtle one. There is an inherent tension between excessive deference to experts and individual liberty. Liberty is based on the idea that individuals are best able to order their lives, but experts, particularly those in the non-falsifiable, social disciplines, pretend that there is a "proper" ordering that is accessible to experts, and to which others should defer, This results in silly ideas such as that children belong to the community, that parents cannot be trusted to make decisions in the best interests of their children, and that people in general are too inept to act in their own best interests. The idea that we should defer to experts, because they claim to be experts, or because they are promoted as experts has an obvious totalitarian pedigree. This is not to say that experts do not have their place, but merely to note that such a place should be an environment of abundant skepticism.

7. Morality. One of the side effects of the scientific veneer that is afforded to claims of expertise is the perception that it is wholly objective and untainted by the types of considerations that motivate moral reasoning. The results are the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, eugenics, the abuse of psychiatry in the former Soviet Union, "transitioning" hormone therapy for five-year-olds, shoving COVID patients into New York nursing homes, etc. Even in the most favorable circumstances, the most accomplished, educated, non-ideological, honest expert does not have the breadth of expertise to tell other how to live, or to decide what should be important to them.

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on August 19, 2020 at 15:11:57 pm

How about research? One does not have to be an expert to recognize we should be investigating the fact that unlike other viruses, Covid 19 is novel in that it targets a specific population for whom, unlike the general the population, the disease can be extremely fatal.

H/T Bernhardt

It is almost like they do not want to find a cure because it does not fit the narrative.

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on August 20, 2020 at 10:46:53 am

Very enlightening take on the current conflict of "experts" vs. "populists." I wasn't familiar with Spence's theory of "cheap talk" but it seems an appropriate tool to analyze the situation we find ourselves in. And I agree with the critiqRather than see it shortened, as one comment suggested, I would like to see in expanded. I think there is a book to be written here. If Professor Rogers would write it, I would be one of its first readers.

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Rob Z
on August 21, 2020 at 11:37:50 am

What is an expert, or a "real expert?" Apparently, someone from out of town, or perhaps, someone in a particular area with experience or knowledge that I don't have. That means millions of experts are out there. In any field, there exist more than one expert, and a range of opinion between experts most often exists. Unknown to many, it is fact that these experts are also expert humans, subject to all the wonderful and not so wonderful human attributes. How is knowledge or experience insulated from human reality in the winning of that knowledge and in its presentation? Dr. Fauci, named an expert, has shown in spades his weakness, whether be it technical or personal. Now he confidently pronounces A, now B confidently replacing A. Expertise, what the expert sells, is mobile and as malleable as science: new thoughts, new pressures, new "facts" = new conclusion. To me, the word "expert" has become almost a four-letter word. When I read or listen to Mr. X, expert in Y, if he is more showman than sober, I draw back, raise the antennae, or find something better to do. Yes, experts there are, and there should be, but to idolize them and not ask one's own questions about the subject, the logic, the show, or the person, is giving license to personal risk.

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d c

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