Education

Experts in apocalyptic harmony

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In mid-May, I spent almost 15 hours over two days in a Zoom training/symposium on the learning management system that the University of Maine System has purchased (your tax and tuition dollars at work).

John Baker, the CEO of D2L (Desire2Learn), the Canadian-based company that won the platform contract (called Brightspace), opened the conference with a keynote address to almost a thousand University of Maine System (UMS) faculty, staff and administrators. The title of his talk was “When Learning Saved the World: How Life after the COVID-19 Pandemic will be Different.”

Mr. Baker started by telling the captive UMS audience that the biggest change will be that people (peasants, the current US President and others amongst the unwashed masses) will (finally) be willing to start listening to (and obeying) the scientists and experts who understand how the world works, and we’ll finally be able to address problems like climate change, poverty and racism.

Having a Canadian CEO lecture me on how his distance learning software platform would enable a woke liberal enlightenment was something of a surprise, but it probably should not have been. The marketing is already a done deal; the UMS Chancellor is the former Democratic Governor of Connecticut and the vast majority of higher education faculty, staff and administrators are left, or very left, of center.

Most of the audience likely self-identified as the very experts who should be exalted and obeyed. Mr. Baker was not nearly the teleprompter orator. President Obama was, but I did get the familiar feeling of being lectured to by a smarmy, too clever by half leftist elitist.

I pushed back a little, sending in a Zoom query as to the fact that the leading “expert” model, which had resulted in the lockdowns that created the current depression, had over predicted deaths by more than an order of magnitude (in fact, by a factor of 15 or 20). Alas, that comment was censored by the university employees who were running the training, although it was probably brought to the attention of a system organizational “expert” and could well result in my placement on the double secret probation list.    

After that inauspicious beginning, the actual training was pretty good, if somewhat overlong. Productivity on Zoom declines pretty quickly after the first hour. You would think all those experts would be aware of that drawback, but the research shows that experts are beset by several systematic problems that explain why folks (peasants) have often been unwilling to follow their orders: hubris, overconfidence and just plain stubborn wrong-headedness.

The late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky did a lot of work researching and documenting how cultural values influence whether, why and which experts are followed and believed, and how underlying attitudes and values influence perceptions and policy preferences on risk and safety. You might say he was something of an expert on experts, and he was particularly critical of the apocalypse predicting Malthusian environmentalist doomsayers.

The most current examples of “apocalypse card” playing experts, who demand to be obeyed or we will all die, are in the areas of climate change and public health/pandemic policy. Not surprisingly, the climate change alarmists have recently teamed up with the pandemic panderers and are making common cause. It is an “expert” duet in apocalyptic harmony.

Wildavsky showed that expert opinion is overconfident, often wrong, rarely corrected and almost never held accountable for poor predictions. That is why the same people who said we would run out of oil, choke on our pollution, starve in a new ice age and die terrible deaths are still at it. Snake oil and fear have always been a profitable con.

Reprinted with permission from the May 26 issue of The Machias Valley News Observer

About Jonathan Reisman

Jon Reisman is an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias. He speaks for himself.

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