June 15, 2009

The Cult of Experts and the Science of Death

My wife worked for many years in the health field, including a stint in a hospital physical therapy unit and a few years as a home-health assistant. One of the things she would tell you is that if your back hurts, surgery won’t fix it. Over and over again, she treated people who had undergone back surgery yet who continued to suffer chronic pain.

Maybe the science of orthopedic surgery has advanced in the past decade. Maybe not. Ask around among your friends and see if any of them have undergone surgery for a ruptured disc, et cetera, and what you’re likely to get is a tale of woe. Few of these tales of woe, however, will be as sad as the story recounted by blogger Carol at No Sheeples Here about the death of 1950s matinee idol Jeff Chandler:

Shortly after completing his role in Merrill’s Marauders in 1961, he injured his back while playing baseball with U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers who served as extras in that movie. Chandler had surgery for a spinal disc herniation on May 13, 1961. There were severe complications following surgery. An artery was damaged and Chandler hemorrhaged. In a seven-and-a-half-hour emergency operation over-and-above the original surgery, he was given 55 pints of blood. Another operation followed where he received an additional 20 pints of blood. He died on June 17, 1961 at the age of 42. His death was deemed malpractice.

The more you know about actual science, the less impressed you are with the claims of capital-S “Science,” by which term I mean to denote the pseudo-religious belief system that atrributes to mankind an impossible perfection of knowledge.

Actual science involves the ascertaining and application of facts, with the knowledge that there are more facts in the universe than any person can ever possibly know. The pseudo-religion of Science, by contrast, involves the belief that “experts” already know all the important facts, and that much of what we normally call “common sense” is contradicted by the facts most recently discovered by these experts, who constitute the high priesthood of the cult of Science.

The authority of the priestly caste of experts is beyond question, and any ordinary person disposed to skepticism of the claims of Science—“Hmmm, that doesn’t match up with what I know from common sense”—is denounced as “unscientific,” un-science being heresy to the belief system. The actual scientist may generally be distinguished from the fraudulent expert of Science by the ferocity with which the latter insists that his own theories are beyond dispute. The fraud fears facts that contradict his theory, since his reputation as an expert is the primary source of his authority, whereas the actual scientist is always pleased to encounter some fact that he has not hitherto taken into consideration.

Of course, the bogus expertise of the high priesthood of Science is a lucrative thing. Fortune and fame await the man who can convince others that he is the pre-eminent expert in some important field of inquiry. Consider the case of Alfred Kinsey, an obscure entomologist who cleverly foresaw the advantages to becoming the world’s foremost “scientific” authority on sex. Or think of Sigmund Freud, the Viennese physician who re-invented himself as master of the new “science” of psychotherapy. To this day, long after actual science has debunked the mystic voodoo of Freudianism, one still hears otherwise intelligent people discuss Freudian conceptions as if describing real phenomena.

In few fields have the experts of Science wreaked so much havoc as in the field of economics. Friedrich Hayek, an actual scientist of economics, almost surely had John Maynard Keynes in mind when he described as “second-hand dealers in ideas” the intellectuals who promoted socialsm in the mid-20th century:

The typical intellectual . . . need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor need he even be particularly intelligent, to perform his role as intermediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself.

Whatever his deficiencies as an economist, Keynes was a master at presenting himself as an expert, and getting others to treat him as an authority whose opinion must be respected. In this, if in nothing else, members of the priestly caste of Science are truly expert—that is, they are experts at convincing others of their expertise.

Think about how, when Timothy Geithner’s nomination as Treasury secretary was before the Senate, we were told that Geithner—who couldn’t even correctly calculate his own income tax—was nonetheless the only man in the country who could save our economic fortunes. Even Republicans praised Geithner, with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah calling him “a person of great integrity.”

Last week, financial analyst James Quinn portrayed Geithner, President Obama and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke as the Larry, Curly and Moe of an economic slapstick routine that would be hysterically funny, if only the consequences weren’t so predictably tragic. When the chairwoman of the FDIC is reduced to literally knocking on wood against the prospects of a tsunami of foreclosures and bank failures, we ought to be skeptical of the economic voodoo being practiced by the experts of Science.

My own skepticism toward such expertise is most likely due to my having spent more than two decades in the newspaper business, journalism being its own sort of cult, with experts who denounce as heretical all those who doubt that mastery of the AP Stylebook is synonymous with omniscience. The newspaper business is nowadays dying a slow and painful death at the hands of its own priestly caste.

We should hardly be surprised that the journalistic priesthood sings the praises of the economic priesthood, even as Dr. Larry, Dr. Curly and Dr. Moe proceed to administer to the American economy the kind of Science that the surgeons provided to the late Jeff Chandler.

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