Jonah Goldberg

There are no more devout members of the cult of expertise than mainstream journalists. They rely on experts for guidance about what is "mainstream" and accurate and what is not. Sometimes that's fine. Surgeons are extremely reliable sources to explain how a heart attack happens. They're not as reliable at telling you who will have one, save in a statistical sense, and even less reliable at telling you when a specific person will have one.

That's because prediction is hard. Experts -- in politics, economics, climate -- are very, very bad at telling people what will happen tomorrow, let alone next year or next century. How many of the economists who tell us what to do now failed to see the mortgage debt crisis coming? Nearly all of them.

Philip Tetlock's 2005 book, "Expert Political Judgment," documents that the predictions of even the most credentialed and experienced experts are often worse and very rarely better than random guessing. "In this age of academic hyperspecialization," he writes, "there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals -- distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on -- are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in 'reading' emerging situations."

The cult of experts has acolytes in all ideological camps, but its most institutionalized following is on the left. The left needs to believe in the authority of experts because without that authority, almost no economic intervention can be justified. If you concede that you have no idea whether your remedy will work, it's going to be hard to sell it to the patient. Market-based ideologies don't have that problem because markets expect events in ways experts never can.

No president since Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt has been more enamored with the cult of expertise than Obama. That none of his economic predictions have panned out is not surprising. What is surprising is that so many people are surprised.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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