How Experts Can Fail Even When They Are Right

I trust experts. I listen to my doctor, mechanic, hairstylist, and financial advisor. I rely on my doctor to advise me about the effects and side effects of different medications. I trust my mechanic to inform me about how replacing my tires would affect traction. I trust my hairstylist to tell me which products will make my hair look a certain way. I trust my financial advisor to inform me about the combinations of risk and return that different mutual funds offer. I trust them to advise me. However, I do not trust them to choose for me. Even if they wish me nothing but the best and are exactly right within their areas of expertise, they do not have my knowledge of “the particular circumstances of time and place.” I think this is true even when there are spillovers, as with contagious diseases like Covid-19.

Here’s a funny, not-as-emotionally-charged-as-Covid illustration. Linking to this Newsweek article, the website It’s a Southern Thing makes fun of experts’ recommendations about thermostat settings that will maximize energy efficiency here and here. Newsweek reports on a Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency report prescribing thermostat settings of 78 degrees when home, 82 degrees at night, and 85 degrees when away from home for maximum energy efficiency.

People all over social media noticed pretty quickly that these expert recommendations were leaving out some vital considerations. First, if energy efficiency is all that matters, why stop at thermostat settings? Why not simply recommend getting rid of home heating and cooling altogether? In fairness, I don’t think they were urging this on people as much as they were trying to inform folks who might want to save a few dollars on their power bill every year and who are looking for small changes they can make. Still, if energy efficiency is a moral imperative, we can do better by telling people they should never turn on their home heating and air again.

Second, there is a lot more to life than energy efficiency. There is comfort, for example, and many of us are willing to pay for comfort. From a lot I’ve read and heard recently, people sleep a lot better in cool bedrooms (I know I do). 82 degrees is a lot of things, but it isn’t “cool.” Comfort affects mood, which directly affects decision-making and relationships. When I’m comfortable, I’m more pleasant to be around, and I make better choices. Saving a few dollars on the power bill every month isn’t worth it if it means being grumpier.

Third, people who want to maintain a constant comfort level with a 78-degree indoor summer temperature might end up wasting a lot of time and money staying cool in other ways. Canned drinks are refreshing when it’s hot, and those cost money. Running electric fans costs money. People dutifully setting their thermostats to 78 degrees might not change their total energy use. They might just change how they do it. In this entertaining (but depressing) article, Richard B. McKenzie explains that the calories people expend walking to work might create more pollution than driving, on net.

Fourth, there are a lot of ways to save energy and money. Don’t go to restaurants as frequently. Be more judicious when shopping for groceries. Take shorter showers. Turn the lights off when you leave a room. In other words, consume less, but even then, there might be unintended consequences. For example, if more people require prescription eyewear after years and years of sitting under the poor light emitted by “environmentally friendly” light bulbs, how much of the earth have we saved?

What does this have to do with expert recommendations about things like masking mandates, social distancing, and lockdowns? First, the energy recommendations are presumably there to combat climate change, not just save people money. Distancing and masking protocols are in place to slow down the transmission of Covid-19. However, one of the problems with relying on narrow expertise is that it tends to overemphasize small parts of people’s lives. There is more to life than minimizing exposure to or transmission of a single pathogen, and there are a lot of ways to reduce Covid risk.

Of course, many places aren’t helping matters by passing laws prohibiting stores, restaurants, and schools from requiring vaccination or masks. That’s hardly consistent with a free society that values experiments in living. David Henderson has made this point at Econlib: saying “you’re not allowed to require proof of vaccination” or “you’re not allowed to require masks” actually interferes with people’s freedom of association. Businesses and schools have dress codes, and the people running those businesses and schools know “the particular circumstances of time and place” better than governors and legislators. 

People also adapt as new information emerges. My older son played football for a single season, enjoyed it, and decided it was not for him. My wife and I were a little worried in light of ongoing evidence about football and head trauma, but we let him play (and I got talked into being an assistant coach, which was hilarious in its own right). Likewise, leagues around the country have adapted to new information about head trauma and issued new rules about contact. One referee said they all agreed that it was probably a good idea to throw a flag whenever everyone in the crowd gasped at once.

Mandates, lockdowns, and control–even when urged by experts who mean nothing but the best–throw away a lot of valuable information. First, there is a lot more to life than whatever the expert is an expert on, and this isn’t to suggest people should throw caution to the wind and do whatever is pleasant and convenient. Second, people adapt to new information. They adopt different policies for their schools, restaurants, and businesses. They say “yes” or “no” to invitations based on new information. They wash their hands with varying degrees of care. The experts, moreover, can get things exactly right but also get things generally wrong. Like experts on energy efficiency don’t know where to set your thermostat, experts on health risks don’t know which bundle of risks and precautions is the right one given your goals and values.

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