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Boris Johnson and the Hypocrisy of Lawmakers

photograph of Boris Johnson making a face

There is something ridiculous about the idea that Boris Johnson might have to resign for hosting a few parties. You might think that it is his policies, or his saying he’d rather “let the bodies pile high” than institute further lockdowns, that should see him go. But parties?

The problem with these gatherings is that they violated COVID regulations, regulations set by Johnson and his party. And the fact that he violated his own decrees (nobody takes seriously his claim that the parties were, in fact, work events) raises an interesting question: what’s so wrong about lawmakers breaking the law?

The first obvious, but bland, answer is that – in a fair legal system – breaking the law simply is wrong, and it’s wrong for lawmakers to break the law in just the same way that it is wrong for anybody to break the law.

This might be a reasonable explanation for why it is wrong for lawmakers to break some laws. For instance, if a lawmaker breaks the speed limit, that seems bad in the same way as if an ordinary member of the public breaks the speed limit. This isn’t just because it is a minor offense. If a member of parliament went and murdered someone, it would be a grave moral wrong, but I don’t think there would be anything especially wrong about it.

In these cases, the wrongness involved is simply the (appalling or minor) wrongness of breaking the law. But there seems to be something especially bad about Johnson’s behavior.

What I think is key is that there is something more involved when a lawmaker breaks a law they have set. Gideon Yaffe has an interesting argument that could lead to this conclusion. He thinks that, since the law is created by citizens in communities, we are complicit in the creation of these laws. But some people are more complicit than others. For instance, kids aren’t very complicit at all in creating the law (since they can’t vote). Yaffe thinks that the more (or less) complicit one is in creating a law, the stronger (or weaker) that law’s reasons apply to you, and the more strongly (or weakly) you should be punished for violating it. And someone like Johnson was maximally complicit in setting England’s COVID laws.

But I’m not sure I’m persuaded. I simply do not buy Yaffe’s “complicity” argument: I don’t see why we need to suppose that the more say someone has over the law, the more it binds them. And I think there is something to be said for the idea that we are all equal before the law: politicians should be punished, but they shouldn’t face any harsher legal punishment than Joe Bloggs.

It’s also important to note that there isn’t really a push for Johnson to see legal punishment. Although some people want to see that, the real focus is on him facing a political punishment. They want him to resign in disgrace. And I think that what explains this pressure is that Johnson has shown that he cannot take his own laws seriously – and taking the law seriously is the point of being a politician.

We can get to this idea by thinking about hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is problematic in politics because it undermines how seriously we take someone. During the 1990s, John Major’s government had a campaign called “Back to Basics,” which aimed to underscore the importance of traditional values like “neighbourliness, decency, courtesy.” Inevitably, Major’s cabinet was then beset by scandal.

The behavior of Major’s cabinet suggested that they did not take these values very seriously. But this was a moral campaign, the difference that compounds Johnson’s case is that his hypocrisy involves the laws he set.

Johnson was not just a hypocrite, he was a hypocrite about the laws he set, laws which are supposed to protect the public. To return to an earlier example, there might not be anything especially wrong if an ordinary lawmaker speeds, but a lawmaker elected on a platform of making the roads safer might do something especially wrong because they are being a hypocrite. By being a hypocrite, this lawmaker shows that she does not – despite her claims – really take speeding laws seriously, she does not act as though they are important. Likewise, by attending parties, Johnson showed that he did not take these laws seriously, and – if the purpose of the laws is to protect the public – he showed that he did not care about protecting the public.

(Alternatively, he showed that he thinks he is special, different from the rest of us: that he can party whilst his laws stop grieving relatives from saying goodbye to their loved ones. I’ll set aside this possibility.)

Johnson (as well as the hypocritical speedster) demonstrated a lack of care about the underlying issues: protecting the public (or keeping to the speed limit) is not important to him. But it also strikes at the strength of this law. Our system of law is not supposed to be simply a matter of force, where the most powerful get the least powerful to comply with what they want. Rather, the law is supposed to provide us with genuine reasons to act, that are somehow linked to the good of others in our community. Nowhere is this more clear than with attempts to curb the ravages of COVID-19.

Everywhere, there is skepticism about COVID-19 laws. They inherently curb our freedoms. By not taking COVID-19 laws seriously, Johnson suggested that the laws are not to be taken seriously. But it is only by taking good laws seriously that they remain good laws, laws which govern us as rational agents rather than as those merely fearful of greater power.

That is why Johnson is under political pressure to resign: Johnson has shown himself incapable of taking seriously the laws he creates, which is the entire point of being Prime Minister. His behavior undermined the justification of the laws he set.

Moral Authority in America

photograph of President Trump leaving podium at border wall event

Leaving office on January 20, a disgraced Donald Trump, enraged over the failure of his attempts to overturn the election result, chastised by his latest impeachment for incitement of insurrection, sulking at being denied a farewell military parade, will be able to gloat about one thing – Joe Biden’s inauguration crowd will be smaller than his.

Trump’s presidency began in January 2016 with the petulant and much-repeated lie that his was the biggest inaugural crowd ever, despite the evidence of photographs showing the size of the crowd attending Barack Obama’s inauguration clearly refuting the claim. This gave rise to Kellyanne Conway’s absurd remark that there are ‘alternative facts’ a phrase which encapsulates the Trump presidency.

This ridiculous lie, and many others like it that issued from the president and his administration over the last four years, seems petty and, compared to other false claims, laughable.

Things have taken a much darker turn since the November election with Trump’s campaign to convince his supporters that the election was rigged culminating in the horrific events of January 6, when what should have been a routine process of certifying the electoral college vote turned, at Trump’s urging, into a violent and deadly assault on Congress by an angry mob of his supporters.

Following this failed insurrection, as the FBI continued to arrest (suspected) participants and the president faced swift rebuke with the House impeaching him, disturbing reports have continued to surface about possible collusion from inside Congress, questions have been raised about the lack of preparedness of security forces, the disparity has been noted between the anaemic response on Capitol Hill the day of the riot and the heavy-handed response to BLM protests earlier in the year; as security services remain concerned about possible sympathizers within the US armed forces and the Pentagon attempts to vet all armed personnel ahead of Biden’s Inauguration, America looks like a different place.

In the hours leading up to the inauguration of Joe Biden as America’s 46th President the world watches on anxiously, shocked by footage of Washington DC, that beacon of democracy, where streets are lined with soldiers in fatigues, and government buildings are fenced off, heavily guarded by military vehicles.

This moment, in which America and the world holds their breath, is the culmination and intersection of many factors – Trump’s election fraud lies, his persistent years-long stoking and appropriation of people’s grievances, and the permissive normalization of white supremacy which has characterized his presidency together with the inexplicable presence in the US of citizen militias legally armed to the teeth.

This period of American political and social history will no doubt keep analysts, historians, and pundits of all kinds busy for a long time.

Something we have heard a lot over the past weeks, from US lawmakers, political observers and members of the public is that these events have somehow changed America. Whether it is being called an insurrection, a domestic terror attack, a riot or the storming of the Capitol, one thing is clear – something has happened to America that has deeply and indelibly affected the country’s claim to being a beacon of democracy. Counting the cost of these last four years (and especially the last two weeks of the Trump presidency), America’s moral authority has to be reassessed.

To talk about America’s moral authority as a free, liberal democracy, jingoistically, without acknowledging factors that complicate that claim – such as the deep vein of racism which runs through American history to the present as its legacy of slavery, and America’s interference in other country’s political processes with its involvement of coups d’état in Latin America during the Cold War era – would be naïve.

But eschewing the simplistic patriotism which leads to sloganizing of America as ‘the greatest country on Earth’ – a cliché that has long irked many non-Americans – still leaves room for America to be justifiably proud of the central role held by liberal democratic values like freedom, equality, civil rights, justice, and the rule of law.

As the era of the Trump presidency (if not of Trumpism) closes, those values have taken a hit. Whether the wounds are fatal is yet to be seen, and depends on what happens next.

However, as the Trump presidency has marched and stumbled inexorably towards the events of January 6, some of the country’s moral authority has been lost.

Moral authority is a difficult, somewhat fuzzy concept. It is not the authority of power, but of example. A person, institution, idea, or indeed a society possesses moral authority when it has over time exemplified some important moral stance. Moral authority exemplifies ‘the good’ not in the shallows of moralism but in the deeper waters of virtue.

Donald Trump has never had any personal moral authority. He has power, and authoritative sway in the form of might, but he does not possess the kind of authority that comes in principle and by example. He has in fact always mistaken power for authority. Of the many instances that demonstrate this confusion is the tone of his attempt to persuade Georgia’s secretary of state to change the election results in early January. Trump has used his power to demand loyalty at all costs, and the costs have been high.

As he has tried more and more to wield his power with sound and fury, real authority has become more and more remote from him.

Trump has of course not single-handedly caused the current crisis in American social and political life that has seen white supremacist extremism move from the fringes to entering the mainstream, but he has used the resentments boiling away in American life ruthlessly to his own ends – to gain power and feed his insatiable ego. As we try to unpack this whole mess, the question of America’s moral authority will have to be wrested back from that of Trump’s – and we have yet to see what is left.

In her book Too Much and Never Enough, Trump’s niece Mary Trump writes:

“The fact is, Donald’s pathologies are so complex and his behaviours so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would  require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never  sit for.”

Diagnosing Trump is one thing, diagnosing the state of the American democracy is another. I believe American democracy is resilient, and that it will win out against the dark forces not just at its door but well and truly inside the gates – but only if America is prepared to learn the lessons here.

Moral authority will not be preserved fully intact after these events, which may not yet be over; but neither will it be lost if we keep hold of the idea that authority is not about being faultless, and it is not about power, or strength in the form of power. Moral authority comes from the way a person, an institution, a country copes with its challenges, and how it responds to its own failings. For such authority to return, power and moralism, will have to step back.

Under Discussion: Voting Best Interests and Democratic Legitimacy

image of hand placing checked ballot in ballot box

This piece concludes an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Democracy’s Demands.

Since the rise of democracies centuries ago, the concern over the rationality of the voting population has been a central one. Winston Churchill famously quipped, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And recently, ethicists and political theorists have studied and analyzed the motivations behind voters who vote in ways that don’t align with what appears to be their best interests. (In the 2016 presidential election, the examples seemed particularly stark.) Jason and Cecilia Rochester, for example, are not alone in voting for Trump and then having their family feel the tragic effects of Trump’s trade policies. Yet still they voted for Trump, who was clear and adamant about his views on immigration and open about his xenophobia towards Mexicans. Farmers who voted for Trump ended up being harmed by his trade policies. In fact, they were the biggest business to suffer from his China trade deals.

But there are a handful of complications surrounding the common criticism that people often fail to vote in support of their best interests.

First, in attending to the resulting government that democracy produces, we can blur the differences between the various forms of government. In other words, if the principal value government is to produce a political system that reflects the “people’s best interests” (whatever we decide that is), then it isn’t clear that democracy would do a better job at this than the other structures. Democracy is often lauded as being more stable than governments that aren’t formed with the consent of the people; it is a platitude that power corrupts, after all. As 1991 Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said of democracy, “Democracy is when the people keep a government in check.” But there are other mechanisms that might keep a government in check, and it’s possible that these alternative structures could have substantive standards for leaders resulting in a government that represents the interests of the people better than representative democracies at least for stretches of time, and at least better than some assessments of the US.

Second, in explaining why people vote against their best interests, it is difficult to assess others’ preference orderings. For example, if someone were to vote for a representative because they ran on trade principles that seemed right and just, but would have predictable negative effects on the voter’s family, community, and state, how would we characterize this vote? It aligns with their preferences, but perhaps not in their “best interests” if we conceive of these as their immediate economic considerations. To have a “right” outcome in mind when evaluating others’ voting choices inevitably reveals bias in how we think voters should make their decisions. Put more plainly, choosing against some conception of your best interests shouldn’t undermine the validity of your choice. And because the legitimacy of democratic authority rests in the consent of the governed and not in the outcome being a particular right answer, features of decision-making that undermine consent may be more concerning.

Say I’m deciding whether or not to go spelunking. There is a spelunking company that will take and train amateurs that I’m considering signing up with. There are the standard pros and cons of spelunking, including risk, cost, joy of discovery, endorphins resulting from exertion, becoming a member of the spelunking community, etc. These factors could not match up very well with my preferences and values in a variety of ways. It could shake out that spelunking would not be a great option for me, given my lack of focus and, to be honest, a bit of claustrophobia. This could sharply contrast with how my friend’s temperament relates to the pros and cons of spelunking, given that she is an adrenaline junky and enjoys exercise of any kind.

However, I decide to go spelunking anyways. It could be foolhardy of me, or perhaps even worthy of disdain, given the fact that I’m likely signing up for a rather bad time of it. But these aren’t criticisms that seem to target whether I’m consenting to take up the enterprise. What features of the case relate to that?

In most cases when a company takes an amateur into a risky situation, like spelunking, base-jumping, rock climbing etc., there is some sort of contract for one thing. In addition, there is usually some sort of required orientation, perhaps simply in order to sufficiently understand the contract. Underlying these features is the standard that you know what you’re getting into.

Many things could play a role in my decision to spelunk without knowing the pros and cons. I could simply not have done sufficient research to know how they line up with my preferences, or I could have been misled by the information misrepresented to me. But it would undermine the consent I am giving to go spelunking if I didn’t know what the basic pros and cons of spelunking were.

But the view that, if we were to deliberate, we would only do what is in our best interests is an overly idealized one. I could decide to spelunk with all the information, and people do things that are irrational, silly, and self-destructive with all the information. However, when we don’t understand the nature of our choices, the connection between our deliberation and the choice we make is undermined. The above example highlights how ignorance is one of the features that can undermine consent.

Because democracies ground their authority not in the result, but in the procedures of their functioning, the connection between the voters and the system is what is important. The danger in a democracy is not instances of people voting against their best interests, but whether they understood the stakes and what they were getting themselves into at the time. This locates concern for democratic legitimacy in misinformation and ignorance of voters.

There is good reason to attend to this concern, as evidence suggests ignorance is promoted by representative democracies and that misinformation has been on the rise in the past decades due to social media and digital communication. In particular, the degree of ignorance and misinformation in this election has created something like multiple realities that make decision-making difficult. For instance, consider the perspectives on the state of our economy.

There are many different views on the state of our economy, the role the president has had on the state of the economy, and the candidates plans for the future of the economy. Now, as in 2016, these perspectives play important roles in determining many voter’s decisions. In 2020, we add the economic fallout of the pandemic where we have experienced the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression, the prediction that 1 in 5 small businesses will close if economic conditions don’t improve in the next six months, and over half of business that have shut down on Yelp say they will not be able to reopen.

It is worrying that such an important aspect of the functioning of our country, and a divisive feature of the candidates’ plans for our nation, can’t begin to be discussed with anything approaching common ground due to different characterizations of the state of our economy.

Ignorance about the reality of our economy is not something new. In 2011, a Harvard business professor and a behavioral economist surveyed Americans about their perspectives on wealth distribution in the US. It highlights the difference between the perception of people in the US from the reality of wealth distribution:

Thus, not only are we currently engaging in public discourse where different groups of people have streams of information that characterize the health of our economy differently, from a non-partisan perspective, we are starting from a skewed understanding of the distribution of wealth. This is reflected in the controversial characterization of socioeconomic class in a recent New York Times article categorizing a family of four making $400,000 as “middle class,” and Vice Presidential candidates engaging in a he-said, she-said about specific economic policies.

Starting from misinformed, misled, or otherwise ignorant positions is a significant threat to the procedures that are meant to grant government authority in democracies. The legitimacy of their power comes from the connection with the deliberation and voting choices of the people. While our votes often appear to conflict with our interests, their weight becomes meaningless if we don’t know what it is we’re endorsing.

Expertise in the Time of COVID-19

photograph of child with mask hugging her mother

Admitting that someone has special knowledge that we don’t or can do a job that we aren’t trained for is not very controversial. We rarely hesitate to hire a car mechanic, accountant, carpenter, and so on, when we need them. Even if some of us could do parts of their jobs passably well, these experts have specialized training that gives them an important advantage over us: They can do it faster, and they are less likely to get it wrong. In these everyday cases, figuring out who is an expert and how much we can trust them is straightforward. They have a sign out front, a degree on the wall, a robustly positive Google review, and so on. If we happen pick the wrong person—someone who happens to be incompetent or a fraud—we haven’t lost much. We try harder next time.

But as our needs get more complicated, for example, when we need information about a pandemic disease and how best to fight it, as our need for that kind of scientific information is politicized, figuring out who the experts are and how much to trust them is less clear.

Consider a question as seemingly simple as whether surgical masks help contain COVID-19. At first, experts said everyone should wear masks. Then other experts said masks won’t help against airborne viruses because the masks do not seal well enough to stop the tiny viral particles. Some said that surgical masks won’t help, but N95 masks will. Then some experts said that surgical masks could at least help keep you from getting the disease from others’ spittle, as they talk, cough, and sneeze. Still other experts said that even this won’t do because we touch the masks too often, undermining their protective capacity. Yet still others say that while the masks cannot protect you from the virus, they can protect others from you if you happen to be infected, “contradicting,” as one physician told me, “years of dogma.”

What are we to believe from this cacophony of authorities? To be sure, some of the confusion stems from the novelty of the novel coronavirus. Months into the global spread, we still don’t know much about it. But a large part of the burden of addressing the public health implications lies not just in expert analysis but how expert judgments are disseminated. And yet, I have questions: If surgical masks won’t keep me from getting the infection because they don’t seal well enough, then how could they keep me from giving it to others? Is the virus airborne or isn’t it? What does “airborne” mean in this context? How do we pick the experts out of this crowd of voices?

Most experts are happy to admit that the world is messier than they would prefer, that they are often beset by the fickleness of nature. And after decades of research on error and bias, we know that experts, just like the rest of us, struggle with biased assumptions and cognitive limitations, the biases inherent in how those before them framed questions in their fields, and by the influence of competing interests—even if from the purest motives—for personal or financial ends. People who are skeptical of expertise point to these deficiencies as reasons to dismiss experts. But if expertise exists, really exists, not merely as a political buzzword or as an ideal in the minds of ivory tower elitists, then, it demands something from us. Experts understand their fields better than novices. They are better at their jobs than people who have not spent years or decades doing their work. And thus, when they speak about what they do, they deserve some degree of trust.

Happily, general skepticism about expertise is not widely championed. Few of us—even in the full throes of, for example, the Dunning-Kruger Effect—would hazard jumping into the cockpit of an airplane without special training. Few of us would refuse medical help for a severe burn or a broken limb. Unfortunately, much of the skepticism worth taking seriously attaches to topics that are likely to do more harm to others than to the skeptic: skepticism about vaccinations, climate change, and the Holocaust. If you happen to fall into one of these groups at some point in your life—I grew up a six-day creationist and evolution-denier—you know how hard it is to break free from that sort of echo chamber.

But even if you have extricated yourself from one distorted worldview, how do you know you’re not trapped in another? That you aren’t inadvertently filtering out or dismissing voices worth listening to? This is a challenge we all face when up against a high degree of risk in a short amount of time from a threat that is new and largely unknown and that is now heavily politicized.

Part of what makes identifying and trusting experts so hard is that not all expertise is alike. Different experts have differing degrees of authority. Consider someone working in an internship in the first year out of medical school. They are an MD, and thus, an expert of sorts. Unfortunately, they have very little clinical experience. They have technical knowledge but little competence applying it to complex medical situations.

Modern medicine has figured out how to compensate for this lack of experience. New doctors have to train for several years under a licensed physician before they can practice on their own. To acquire sufficient expertise, they have to be immersed into the domain of their medical specialty. The point is that not every doctor has the same authority as every other, and this is true for other expert domains, as well.

A further complication is that types of expertise differ in how much background information and training is required to do their jobs well. Some types of expertise are closer to what philosopher Thi Nguyen calls our “cognitive mainland.” This mainland refers to the world that novices are familiar with, the language they can make sense of. For example, most novices understand enough about what landscape designers do to assess their competence. They can usually find reviews of their work online. They can even go look at some of their work for themselves. Even if they don’t know much about horticulture, they know whether a yard looks nice.

But expertise varies in how close to us it is. For example, what mortgage brokers do is not as close to us as landscapers. It is further away from our cognitive mainland, out at sea, as it were. First-time home buyers need a lot of time to learn the language associated with the mortgage industry and what it means for them. The farther out an expert domain is from a novice’s mainland, the more likely they are on what Nguyen calls a “cognitive island,” isolated from resources that would let novices make sense of their abilities and authority.

Under normal circumstances, novices have some tools for deciding who is an expert and who is not, and for deciding which experts to trust and which to ignore. This is not easy, but it can be done. Looking up someone’s credentials, certifications, years of experience, recommendations, track records, and so on, can give novices a sense of someone’s competence.

As the expertise gets farther from novices’ cognitive mainland, they can turn to other experts in closely related fields to help them make sense of it. In the case of mortgages, for example, they might have a friend who works in real estate or someone in banking to help translate the relevant bits to us in a way that meets our need. In other words, they can use “meta-experts,” experts in a closely related domain who understand enough of the domain to help them choose experts in that domain wisely.

Unfortunately, during a public health emergency, uncertainty, time constraints, and politicization mean that all of these typical strategies can easily go awry. Experts who feel pressured by society or threatened by politicians can—even if inadvertently—manufacture a type of consensus. They can double-down on a way of thinking about a problem for the sake of maintaining the authority of their testimony. In some cases, this is a simple matter of groupthink. In other cases, it can seem more intentional, even if it isn’t.

Psychologist Philip Tetlock, in his book with Dan Gardner Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015), explains how to prevent this sort of consensus problem by bringing together diverse experts on the same problem and suspending any hierarchical relationships among them. If everyone feels free to comment and if honest critique is welcomed, better decisions are made. In Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (2014), sociologist Harry Collins contends that this is also how peer review works in academic settings. Not everyone who reviews a scientific paper for publication is an expert in the narrow specialization of the researcher. Rather, they understand how scientific research works, the basic terminology used in that domain, and how new information in domains like it is generated. Not only can experts in related domains allow us to challenge groupthink and spur more creative solutions, they can help identify errors in research and reasoning because they understand how expertise works.

These findings are helpful for novices, too. They suggest that our best tool for identifying and evaluating expertise is, rather than pure consensus, consensus among a mix of voices close to the domain in question. We might call this meta-expert consensus. Novices need not be especially close to a specialized domain to know whether someone working in it is trustworthy. They only have to be close enough to people close to that domain to recognize broad consensus among those who understand the basics in a domain.

Of course, how we spend our energy on experts matters. There are many questions that political and institutional leaders face that the average citizen will not. The average person need not invest energy on highly specialized questions like:

  • How should hospitals fairly allocate scarce resources?
  • How do health care facilities protect health care workers and vulnerable populations from unnecessary risks?
  • How can we stabilize volatile markets?
  • How do we identify people who are immune from the virus quickly so they can return to the workforce?

The payoff is too low and the investment too significant.

On the other hand, there are questions worth everyone’s time and effort:

  • Should I sanitize my groceries before or when I bring them into my living space?
  • How often can I reasonably go out to get groceries and supplies?
  • How can I safely care for my aging parent if I still have to go to work?
  • Should I reallocate my investment portfolio?
  • Can I still exercise outdoors?

Where are we on the mask thing? It turns out, experts at the CDC are still debating their usefulness under different conditions. But here’s an article that helps make sense of what experts are thinking about when they are making recommendations about mask-wearing.

The work required to find and assess experts is not elegant. But neither is the world this pandemic is creating. And understanding how expertise works can help us cultivate a set of beliefs that, if not elegant, is at least more responsible.

Hydroxychloroquine and the Problem of Expert Disagreement

photograph of Coronavirus Update Breifing with Dr. Fauci at the podium with Trump behind him

On April 5th, after promoting the use of an anti-malarial drug to (possibly) help stem the tide of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump commented, “What do I know? I’m not a doctor, but I have common sense.” According to Trump, even though we still lack conclusive evidence that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19, there is no reason not to try using it: the medication has been prescribed for other reasons for years and some preliminary results suggest it might also help diminish the effects of the novel coronavirus.

In contrast, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the Coronavirus Task Force assembled by the White House to combat the outbreak, has repeatedly cautioned against counting on a treatment regimen that, based on what we know at this point, may not actually work; speaking to Fox and Friends on April 3rd, Fauci warned “We’ve got to be careful that we don’t make that majestic leap to assume that this is a knockout drug. We still need to do the kinds of studies that definitely prove whether any intervention is truly safe and effective.”

What should the average American (who, presumably, knows next to nothing about hydroxychloroquine) make of this disagreement? In most cases, we have reason to believe that the President of the United States – whoever that person happens to be – is in a position to be well-informed and trustworthy. Similarly, we have good reasons to think that doctors who have been appointed to lead federal research institutes (like the NIAID) – not to mention medical doctors in general – are believable experts about medications and prescription practices, as well as other matters of healthcare. How is a non-expert supposed to know who should be believed when purported experts disagree?

This is what philosophers sometimes call the “problem of expert disagreement” – if a layperson needs the insight of an expert to make a reasonable judgment about a claim, but two potential experts disagree, how can the layperson decide which expert to believe? Although the answer here might initially seem trivially easy – the layperson should just listen to whichever expert has more relevant knowledge about the claim – things aren’t so simple: how can the layperson know what counts as “relevant knowledge” if they are, in fact, just a layperson?

So, instead, we might look to the credentials of the two experts to see what sort of education or experience they might be employing when making their recommendations. If we know that one expert graduated from a well-respected university that specializes in the relevant field while the other received a degree from a university that does not train experts in the specific domain, then we have some reason to trust the first over the second. Ultimately, though, this test might not be much better than the first option: it requires the layperson to be able to judge the relative merit of credentialing institutions rather than credentialed individuals and this also seems unrealistic to expect actual laypersons to be capable of doing.

It’s worth noting, though, that this is exactly what laypersons think they’re doing when they simply assert that someone “went to Cornell” or “is the President” – they’re citing some person as an authority in virtue of credentials that they hold, regardless of whether those credentials are actually relevant to the question up for debate. In the worst cases, this isn’t just some misleading effect of celebrity, it’s actually the fallacious “argument from authority” (or an argumentum ad verecundiam, if you prefer): this example of bad reasoning occurs whenever a bad argument is grounded on the basis of someone’s authority in an irrelevant area of expertise.

Finally, laypersons might judge between two disagreeing experts by investigating which expert agrees with the standard consensus of other experts in their field. By increasing the sample size of experts beyond just the original two, the layperson can feasibly judge whether or not a particular person is an outlier among their peers. Presumably, a majority of experts will hold the most credibly supported position in the field (indeed, it’s not clear what else would constitute such a position). Of course, there are problems with this method too (experts in a field might agree with each other for all sorts of reasons other than a concern for the truth, for example), but it’s worth noting that this technique can be used even by the most ignorant of laypersons: all we need to know to judge between two experts is which expert’s peer group is bigger.

Typically, the problem of expert disagreement is debated among philosophers interested in social epistemology – the study of how knowledge works in group contexts – but when expert testimony bears on moral matters then ethicists should be concerned with it as well. It’s general epistemological doctrine that thinkers should believe what’s true, but (even if you deny this) it’s straightforwardly (or at least pragmatically) clear that people interested in protecting themselves and their loved ones from a pandemic should listen to the best medical experts available.

All of this is to say that, in the case of hydroxychloroquine and its purported role in fighting COVID-19, Fauci’s expertise (if you’ll forgive me for putting it this way) clearly trumps Trump’s. In the case of the first test, Dr. Fauci’s position as a medical expert gives his opinion immediate priority for medical questions over that of President Trump (whose job often entails seeking the expert advice of specialists like Fauci). For the second test, Dr. Fauci’s educational and professional career are clearly more relevant to medical questions than President Trump’s history of making real estate and television deals – and no amount of “common sense” matters here, either. Finally, although Trump has repeatedly referenced a survey of medical professionals in support of his position, Fauci’s insistence on controlled testing is simply the standard vetting process scientists seek to ensure that new treatment regimens are safe; the group Trump appeals to (based on that survey) numbers around 2300 individuals, whereas Fauci’s is something on the order of “most every medical researcher who has practiced in the last century.” United States presidents command many things, but the scientific method is not one of them.

Which might also be why Trump now appears to be actively censoring Fauci during press briefings, but that’s a topic for a different article.

Press Freedom in Australia: Democracy, Transparency, and Trust

photograph of two security cameras on side of building

This past week on Wednesday morning June 5, the Australian Federal Police raided the headquarters of the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster and the most trusted media organisation in the country. Files were seized relating to a story from 2017 known as The Afghan Files sourced from leaked documents some of which detailed disturbing allegations of misconduct and criminal activity by Australian Special Forces serving in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2014.

The previous day, Tuesday June 4, the AFP had raided the home of News Corp Journalist Annika Smethurst in connection with a story she published over 12 months ago about the government secretly canvassing a plan to allow the National Signals Directorate to spy on Australians without their knowledge by hacking into critical infrastructure.

These raids have provoked outrage in Australia and beyond. It must be noted that the timing of consecutive raids is extraordinary, given that both reports concerned are well over 12 months old, and are in no way related to one another. The searches have raised concern about press freedom in Australia, with the media union denouncing them as a disturbing attempt to “intimidate” journalism.

Overseas media organisations like the BBC and The New York Times have weighed in on the raids. In a statement on Twitter the BBC said “this police raid against our partners the ABC is an attack on press freedom which we at the BBC find deeply troubling.” And The New York Times reported that Australia May Well be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy. Indeed, the Australian government has become increasingly tenacious in its pursuit of secrecy on a range of fronts, under the ever-broadening umbrella of ‘national security.’

These raids suggest that knowledge, which is merely inconvenient or embarrassing to the Australian government, is being guarded under the cloak of national security. Many observers dispute the characterization of either of these stories as genuine security issues. It is clear, also, that the release of both stories are overwhelmingly in the public interest. As such, it appears the government’s sweeping national security powers are being used to silence and intimidate journalists and their sources.

At the center of the debate is the question of what kind of security matters count as genuine reasons to keep knowledge from the public, and what constitutes an overwhelming public interest. At issue is balancing the principle of the public’s right to know with government’s need for confidentiality to protect other important things like security.

In the era since September 11, in response to the heightened threat of domestic terrorism, Australia has zealously pursued anti-terror, security legislation that has significantly advanced government agency powers. One such law, passed in 2015, requires internet providers and mobile phone networks to store customers’ metadata – the sender, recipient and time of emails and calls. The government argued that the bill was necessary to help Australia’s security services fight domestic terrorism. Those laws were further expanded once again at the end of 2018. There are limited defense provisions for journalists on the basis of public interest, but very weak protections for whistle-blowers who might be sources for investigative journalists.

If ‘national security’ is being used, as many civil liberties advocates worried it would be, to shut down debate and to silence public conversation, this has grave implications for Australia’s democratic integrity. There are deep issues at stake, in terms of the citizens’ ability to trust in the institutions of government, and to be protected against capricious acts by institutions, agencies, and governments. While security and confidentiality are important values, they must not be used by governments to hide things about which we ought to know, and we have to be able to trust that they are not.

It is ostensibly a conflict between the public’s right to know and the government’s right or need to protect confidential information, but that may be a false dichotomy. The interest of the people ought to be the only thing that determines the interest of a properly liberal democratic government –that is its raison d’être and its sole source of legitimacy. That is the ideal of a free democratic society – it is not however true in practice, and the distance between this ideal and reality is the measure of the extent of corruption of the modern democratic state. Corruption thrives on secrets.

Transparency and accountability are two of the most important principles for the functioning of an open, free society. They are both necessary conditions, without which a free, democratic society is not possible. We must be able to trust that, when knowledge which may have profound implications for our society is withheld on security grounds there is a genuine security risk associated with its disclosure. Yet that expectation of trustworthiness appears to have been breached, as the Australian government seeks to enforce its culture of secrecy by employing tactics of intimidation.

Australians have been asked to accept the erosion of many freedoms for the protection of national security. If these raids are not shown to be precipitated by genuine security concerns, the government’s ability to prosecute a case for genuine security needs in the future is compromised.

In a democracy the citizens legitimize the power of the state, and a democratic government has to be accountable to the citizens. A free press is what makes that accountability possible. In general, truth is fundamentally important for the function of an open, healthy democratic society, and we should lean heavily on the side of the public’s right to know and err on the side of transparency.

While some civil liberties advocates have long expressed scepticism about the wisdom of sweeping security laws, especially since Australia, lacking a bill or charter of rights, does not have strong legal protections for freedom of speech protecting the press, more broadly there has been a failure of community and political opposition to critically examine new security laws for how they could be misused; a failure which political commentator Waleed Aly described as a failure of civil reasoning. That failure has occurred in the context of a political culture dominated in Australia by ‘national security’ over other civic freedoms and rights.

The national conversation Australia is now having is about press freedom and its importance for democracy. Those participating need to remain cognizant that at stake is the abstract political and philosophical question of the legitimacy and the limit of state power.


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