When I was a kid, society admired experts. We looked up to those who, through years of study and experience, knew stuff. Doctors were among the most highly regarded experts at the time and were revered in a way that probably wasn’t healthy.
If my parents’ doctor told them something, that was it. There was no reason to ask him a question, probe for more information, or, God forbid, get another opinion. After all, he’s a doctor. He went to medical school.
The aura of expertise even glowed from those near the expert. There was sort of a pecking order at school, and if someone’s father was a doctor, since the doctor was an expert on everything, so was his kid. You could be having an argument on the playground about pretty much anything, like which color is better, red or blue? Just when you thought you had the upper hand and had won the argument, your friend would say, “I should know. My dad’s a doctor.” All you could do was shrug your shoulders and agree that the kid of a doctor probably had more to say about which color was better than you did.
That has changed today, and not just about doctors. We now live in a world where expertise is no longer universally revered. Instead, it is ridiculed and looked down upon by many. We see this everywhere. Doctors tell us, virtually unanimously, that it is critical to have children immunized and thousands of parents ignore that advice because they simply choose not to believe the experts. In doing so, they imperil not only their own children, but others in the community who, due to other medical conditions, are not able to be immunized.
Scientists tell us that there is a growing climate crisis and a significant portion of the population chooses not to believe the experts. And, of course, a significant portion of the population chooses to ignore what intelligence experts unanimously concluded about the 2016 election.
Donald Trump did not start this trend, but he has exploited and magnified it. During his campaign and his administration, he has claimed to know more than the generals about military issues, more than the economists about economic and tax policy, more than energy experts about renewables, more than trade experts about trade policy, more than career diplomats about foreign policy, more than … well, you get the idea.
Of course, he knows very little about any of those topics. The fact that he is able to assert expertise over everything with no training or experience and have his opinion considered important by millions of people is frightening. But more than that, it is a sad commentary on our society.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the current coronavirus pandemic. Trump has called it a hoax and caused millions of people to act so recklessly that they will no doubt exacerbate the problem. Even as he reluctantly adopts some of the policies his medical advisors have advocated for weeks, the president sends a message to his minions to ignore those policies. He has indicated that people who contract the disease will be fine even if they go to work, even though his medical advisors have warned people against going to work ill. Trump continues to have close contact with others, including people known to have been exposed to the virus, even as official policy discourages that behavior.
For those who follow Trump in an almost cult-like way, his behavior reinforces that he has, and they should have, a disdain for the experts whose advice we should be heeding right now. People are going to die because of the president’s irresponsible behavior, but that will be only part of his legacy. This presidency will either be the point where the country finally realizes the devastating effects of ignoring scientists, experts, and knowledge, or the point where those things cease to matter altogether.
Which one it will be is up to us.
Leonard Soffer is a resident of River Forest.