Questioning authority means just that

Questioning authority means just that

Updated: 4 months, 24 days, 21 hours, 2 minutes, 28 seconds ago

Sensible people know that those at the top do not always know best.

But expressing a healthy skepticism of government authority in the moment is a far cry from swallowing crackpot theories and defamations of those considered in the “elite.” Questioning experts from a position of common sense is realistic; knee-jerk dismissal of all expert opinion is simply stupid.

There are experienced legal and law enforcement professionals in New York who have a good sense of what goes on in police departments, courts, and jails. They can and do suggest how to treat an uptick in scary violence without abusing the rights of individuals.

But bona fide criminal justice veterans were disregarded, for example, by the last New York City mayor, who made shallow progressive pretense his political signature.

Seasoned experts do their best trying to handle pandemics. Their input was demeaned by the last presidential administration — which peddled occult cures while treating social distancing, masks, and business restrictions as politically unpalatable.

That, too, was a degradation of expertise in the cause of empty partisan pandering. And later in the pandemic, it gave way to fueling deranged and communally destructive anti-vaccine sentiment.

In an environment where people are marketed ambiguously as professional “influencers,” exaggerated spin can win elections. Celebrity is divorced from the ability to govern. If there is no regard for agreed-upon facts, you have no common ground to solve problems. It’s that simple.

Much is written on this. Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise,” cites the growth of a “customer satisfaction model” in higher education, and the mutation of broadcast news into entertainment, as part of a societal push against established knowledge.

In “The War on Science,” author Shawn Otto throws shade on “expert” climate-change deniers hired by oil companies and right-wing polemicists to subvert environmental concerns. Otto also skewers trendy academics who "insist that all truth is subjective," thus undermining valid scientific approaches.

This is especially worth considering at election time.

If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been found to give muddled messaging or off-the-mark guidance, do we find out what happened and shore up the institution’s competence — or just surrender the mission and, say, circulate slanders about Dr. Anthony Fauci?

In the U.S., even at our most rational, different groups propose to destroy rather than reform different institutions. Some of those legitimately angry about the murder of George Floyd and others who undeservedly died in police custody agitated to abolish police — although it’s never been done in any nation anywhere.

Don’t like the way the IRS seeks to collect from tax cheats? Abolish it, some say, in the spirit of "defunding." Should we abolish the armed forces because they were used in doomed and deadly quagmires?

Anti-testing mania from parents marked a rebellion against objective measures created by experts to evaluate schooling. It didn't improve the schools.

As author Nichols and others suggest, some people anoint themselves medical experts after reading a few web articles. Some decide the same way that they have all the right answers to diplomatic and economic quandaries.

The future of a democratic republic depends on recognizing specific problems and collectively finding rational solutions. This is the system we have, and its agencies will always need adjustment in order to function. 

How's this for a sane proposal: Listen first and understand those credentialed to know what they're talking about — then decide whether it's a good idea to defy and demonize them.

Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own.