Soap Bubbles

The Great Failure of Experts in a Bubble

The failure of experts unfolding around us right now is spectacular. In health and public policy, experts have stumbled in very visible ways. Thus, public confidence in expertise is shaky and people are doing some absolutely wacky things, harming themselves and others. But why?

No doubt, the reasons are many. However, part of the pattern is clear enough. When experts live in a bubble, connecting mostly with like-minded people, they can make tragic mistakes.

Didn’t See That Coming

When the Afghan government and military evaporated in August, U.S. experts were gobsmacked. They had been living in a bubble of hubris, apparently unaware of deals made well in advance by low-level Afghan leaders that made this happen.

When COVID emerged, public health experts at CDC panicked because supplies of masks were inadequate for medical personnel. So they told the public, “you don’t need a mask,” only to eat their words later. Now, those experts are wringing their hands as scuffles erupt in public over the necessity of masks. How can people be so stupid, they ask themselves? They might find part of the answer in the mirror. Experts have failed to be “first, right, and credible” in the COVID pandemic. So large segments of the public go with their gut rather than following expert advice they believe to be unreliable.

For decades now, public health efforts to prevent obesity have been mostly ineffective. Despite assurances from CDC that “we know what works” for prevention, prevalence has risen in a straight line for four decades. Throughout those four decades, experts in public health largely ignored the lived experience of people with obesity. Or simply dismissed them as a lost cause. “There’s just too many of them,” is a common excuse for denying access to obesity care.

But people living with obesity are more expert on the subject than thin experts who elect to dismiss them. They know that glib advice to eat less and move more doesn’t often, by itself, move the needle.

A Crisis of Trust

Experts living in a bubble have brought us a crisis of trust. In their 2021 Trust Barometer report, Edelman sees widespread mistrust of experts and leaders. CEO Richard Edelman explains:

“This is the era of information bankruptcy. We’ve been lied to by those in charge, and media sources are seen as politicized and biased. The result is a lack of quality information and increased divisiveness.”

Trust in healthcare, though still high, is dropping all around the world according to Edelman’s latest data. Do health systems really listen to patients? Do they work to ensure that providers can do so?

Specialized expertise will always be important. But not without reflecting the lived experience of communities it seeks to influence. Living in a bubble, expertise will decay and the great failure of experts in a bubble will continue.

But failure does bring the opportunity for learning – if only we will take it.

Click here and here to read more about expert failures in the COVID pandemic. For more on policy failures in obesity, click here and here.

Soap Bubbles, painting by Ferdinand du Puigaudeau / WikiArt

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September 12, 2021

2 Responses to “The Great Failure of Experts in a Bubble”

  1. September 12, 2021 at 7:18 am, Andrew Brown said:

    Thomas M. Nichols
    The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

    This book has some good insights on what is meant by expert, as well as the fact that anyone calls themselves an expert these days. A little petulant at times (still listening through it myself) but relevant to your post none the less.

    When I see criticism of the failure of experts, I always pause and think: Were they really experts? Did all or most experts fail (or, in the case of CDC, a large authoritative expert body)? And what does failure of experts mean (e.g., did they take a reasonable, expertise-guided best guess and miss the mark that we could not have expected better from; or did they make a blunder for which an expert should have known better)?

    I think these examples are a mix, which makes the problem all the harder to address.

    • September 12, 2021 at 7:32 am, Ted said:

      Excellent insight. Thanks, Andrew!