The last two years have been a challenge for the constellation of experts whose opinions help shape government decision making and everyday life. From public health to education, disinformation to national security, they haven’t acquitted themselves well.
Nowhere has this phenomenon been more apparent than in public health requirements in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
And it wasn’t just masking. Official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) flipped with head-spinning regularity, from social distancing to testing requirements and beyond. Despite claims that these changes were following the science, CDC leaders sometimes let the (proverbial) mask slip. CDCDirectorRochelleWalensky conceded that new rules about quarantining was based not on the science of transmission but the reality of human patience, saying that the new guidance reflected “what [the CDC] thought people would be willing to tolerate.”
Medical experts also dismissed potentially valuable information that didn’t fit their narratives. When some suggested that those who had recovered from Covid could have natural immunity against future infection, experts and elected officials wrote off the possibility. Months later, new data suggested that natural immunity protected better than vaccination against later waves of the virus.
It didn’t help that public health experts repeatedly undercut their own credibility and impartiality to offer support for political causes, typified in a letter in June 2020 – during the height of the pandemic – arguing that political protests should get to violate restrictions because these protests against “the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy“ were “vital to the national public health.”
A similar phenomenon played out to discredit the idea that the virus could have come from a lab accident in Wuhan – originally, at least. In a May 2020 interview, Dr. Fauci said that “the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species,” which “crushed Donald Trump’s theory of the origins of the coronavirus” according to CNN.
This debate roped in another set of experts: those specializing in “disinformation,” conspiracy theories and other lies pushed on the internet for political purposes. Despite their stated goal, these experts made a habit of promoting stories that didn’t hold water or shot down plausible ones as lacking merit.
In a since-corrected piece, The Washington Post claimed that Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was “pushing a debunked conspiracy” by suggesting that the pandemic could’ve sprung from a lab. Experts blanketed broadcast outlets, from CNN to NBC and beyond to scoff at the lab leak hypothesis.
For parents across the country, the inconsistency and fallibility of experts was felt most acutely concerning schools. When the pandemic started, cities and states closed in-person schooling. As it dragged on, many blue cities and states continued remote schooling, even as case counts fell. Two years after those first school closures, we’re starting to see the negative impacts that experts hand-waved away as safer than the alternative.
These consequences disproportionately fell on poor kids and students of color. In Washington, DC, literacy rates among white students largely held steady, dropping from 73% in 2019 to 70% after two years of remote schooling. The drop-off was far more pronounced for black and Hispanic students: from 44% to 28% and 42% to 30%, respectively.
At least one school system that largely remained open saw educational attainment largely hold steady. Students in the Lewis-Palmer district outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado experienced a slight drop-off in math scores but saw reading scores increase and SAT scores hold steady. Not a single student was hospitalized with Covid.
As was the case with racial justice protests, politics seemed to infect the decision making in schools. The CDC changed their guidance on school reopening after the most powerful teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, lobbied to keep schools closed.
In recent days, another set of experts have had their turn in the barrel – this time, national security experts. The New York Times recently ran a story about the legal troubles of President Biden’s son Hunter, including an admission that a laptop containing a trove of scandalous emails did, in fact, belong to Hunter.
But this story wasn’t new news. The New York Postbroke the story in October 2020, outlining emails that, among other things, appeared to tie President Biden to a kickback scheme involving a client with ties to the Chinese government.
Now that the corporate press has conceded the veracity of the reporting, these experts are conspicuously silent.
This post-exposure silence isn’t anything new. While experts may be readily available on cable news to buttress a particular talking point, they evaporate when their suggestions and predictions fail to materialize.
Journalists have long relied on experts to help explain the nuances and technicalities of the news. Given their recent track record across disciplines, everyday Americans would be wise to think twice before taking expert commentary at face value.