Opinion column: Opening schools amid limits of expertise

The last thing you want to hear from your brain surgeon (aside from “Oops”) is “Wow, I’ve always wanted to do one of these.” You’ll feel a lot better hearing, “I’ve done 30 operations like this over the past month and published several articles about them.”

Expertise like that is essential for brain surgery, building rockets, constructing skyscrapers, and much, much more. Our modern world is built upon it. We need such expert advice as we decide whether to open schools this fall, and we should turn to educators, physicians, and economists to get it. But ultimately we, as citizens and the local officials we elect, should make the choices. These are not technical decisions but political ones that incorporate technical issues and projections. We should hold our representatives, not the experts, responsible for the choices they make.

When we listen to experts, we should remember Clint Eastwood’s comment in “Magnum Force”: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Even the best authorities have them, and one, ironically, is that they seldom admit them, even to themselves. It is important for us both to appreciate expert advice and to recognize its limits every time we’re told to “be quiet and do what they say.” We should listen, think it over, and then make our own decisions as citizens, parents, teachers, business owners, workers, retirees — and voters.

The best way to understand why we need experts but also why we need to weigh their advice, not swallow it whole and uncooked, is to consider this illustration: Should we build a hydroelectric dam in a beautiful valley? If we construct it, we certainly need the best engineers and construction workers. We need engineering firms to project the cost and economists to project the price of its energy and potable water. Their expertise is essential.

But they cannot tell us whether it is wise to destroy California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley to build that dam. The world’s top experts on wildlife conservation and regional economic growth cannot give us the definitive answer, either. They would give us, at best, different answers, reflecting their different expertise. The conservationist would tell us it is a terrible idea to destroy such beautiful, irreplaceable habitat and kill endangered species. The economist would tell us we need the energy and fresh water if Northern California is to grow. What no economist could have predicted, decades ago, is that the entire world’s income would vastly increase because of technological advances from Silicon Valley, which had the resources needed to grow.

The hydroelectric example illustrates a more general point: complex questions involve experts in multiple fields, but there is no supra-expert to aggregate their differing advice. Even if we assume all experts within a field give similar advice, who can aggregate it across fields? No one. There is no “expert of experts.” In the example of the hydroelectric dam, the policy decision depends on how much we weigh conservation versus growth and how well we can predict future options and alternatives, such as the price of solar power or prospective growth from Palo Alto to San Jose.

Sorting out the answers is ultimately a question for voters and their representatives, not for experts in hydroelectric engineering, wildlife conservation, or regional economics. We need the best advice, but only we, as citizens, can weigh it and make a final decision. In a representative democracy, we elect officials to make those decisions. If democracy is to work, we must hold them accountable. One criticism of the growing regulatory state is that it is impossible to hold the decision makers accountable. Some of that criticism should be directed at legislators, who avoid responsibility by writing vague laws and then off-loading hard decisions onto bureaucrats and judges.

We should be especially skeptical when experts predict distant outcomes. Their record is none too impressive. We should be skeptical, too, when laws and regulations set one definitive criterion, such as preserving the endangered snail darter, at the expense of all other considerations. That might be the best decision, or it might not, but it is ultimately a political choice. Right now, federal judges have awarded themselves extensive – and unilateral – power to make it.

These problems, which combine technical expertise and political judgment, are essential to understanding our dilemmas about reopening K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiologists are saying, “Resuming in-person instruction too soon could spread the disease. Although children are at low risk, they will bring it home to parents and grandparents.” Pediatricians, by contrast, say it is important for children’s overall health to get them back in school. Online learning is not very effective, they say, and losing a year’s classroom instruction and socialization will be extremely harmful. Economists focus on different issues, such as parents who cannot return to full-time employment because they must care for children at home. That constraint is especially harmful to one-parent households and low-income, hourly workers, whose children also have less access to computers and fast internet connections. Notice that these experts are not the self-interested voices of interest groups such as teachers’ unions or small businesses. They are specialists in economics, education, and public health. Each has its own “silo of expertise.” Each silo produces a different answer because its experts focus on their own subset of issues and weigh them most heavily.

As we listen to these experts, we need to remember that even the best, most disinterested advice has its limitations. Reopening schools, like other big policy questions, involves multiple silos and hundreds of moving parts. It is impossible to predict what all those parts will do, how much weight to give each one, or what effects they might have, now and in the distant future. It was only from trial-and-error that we learned how inadequate online instruction really is. We entered this massive national experiment with some optimism and trudge forward with pessimism.

We should be humble about what we still don’t know. Our success in reopening schools and businesses depends on things we cannot know with certainty. How quickly will our biotechnology companies discover effective therapeutics and vaccines? How quickly will the American population develop “herd immunity?” How soon will customers return, en masse, to shopping malls, indoor dining, and cross-country travel?

Predicting the secondary and tertiary effects of policy choices is especially hard. Keeping businesses closed, for instance, sharply reduces local tax revenues, which probably means reducing essential services such as garbage collection and local policing. Those cuts harm public health and safety. But how much? No expert is smart enough to predict all these knock-on effects, much less aggregate them and give an overall conclusion. As it happens, experts are no better at predicting these effects than well-informed laymen. The main difference, according to studies, is that experts are more confident in their (often-wrong) predictions.

The point here is not that experts are irrelevant. We need them, and we need to pay attention to their data, logic, and conclusions. But we also need to remember that even the best current knowledge has its limits. There are no “supra-experts” to weigh the best advice from different fields and aggregate them to reach the “definitive” answer.

Sorting out this expert advice is not a technological question. It is a political one. Mayors, governors, and school boards across the country understand that crucial point as they decide whether to open schools this fall for in-person instruction. The voters understand it, too. They should listen to the experts, see what other jurisdictions decide, and check out their varied results. Then, they should walk into the voting booth and hold their representatives to account.



Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.