Who’s an Expert? How Can You Tell?
by edward tenner
edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.
Published October 31, 2022
In the annals of academia, United States v. Peter K. Navarro was a first. No previous economic advisor to a president — Navarro joined the Trump administration as director of the National Trade Council in 2017 — had ever been charged with a federal crime, in this case refusal to comply with a subpoena by the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.
For the University of California (Irvine) professor-emeritus, the arrest at the Nashville airport was a bizarre and humiliating experience — he described the FBI agents as “kind Nazis.” The odyssey of this Harvard PhD from supporter of Hillary Clinton to die-hard Trump loyalist is only the latest example of what I call “alt-thority”: the break of individuals with elite backgrounds from their former colleagues to join fringe movements.
What’s an Alt-thority?
Alt-thorities should be distinguished from academics and journalists who are really just outliers within the establishment — people like the conservative political scientists Robert George at Princeton and Harvey Mansfield at Harvard or, on the left, the linguist Noam Chomsky at MIT. Newt Gingrich, despite his PhD (Tulane, in history), is not a true alt-thority because his credentials have seldom informed his politics — except for his bizarre assertion that Barack Obama’s politics were inspired by the anti-colonial Kenyan Mau Mau movement. By the same token, politicians with elite law degrees, including Texas senator Ted Cruz (Harvard) and Florida governor Ron DeSantis (also Harvard), do not present themselves as legal scholars.
Alt-thorities generally do not command the same political power or social presence as highly visible leaders on political fringes. But they do play an important part in the media ecology, helping to legitimize views that are unwelcome in the establishment and supplying fodder for cable news and radio personalities like Tucker Carlson.
Today’s Trumpist public intellectuals and their overseas counterparts are not the first alt-thorities. John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heretics in the 14th century, were both professors of theology. So was Martin Luther, so brilliant a star that after he took monastic vows his superiors encouraged him to earn a doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg, and his mentor chose him as his successor in the chair of theology.
Hus was burned at the stake, as were Wycliffe’s remains. However, Luther not only had stronger secular protection but (as importantly) the new weapon of the printing press — just as 21st-century alt-thorities have Twitter and Facebook. Of course, once Luther had established his own orthodoxy, he and the other Reformers turned on the “heretics” within the Protestant movement.
In America, which was overwhelmingly Protestant through most of the 19th century, clerical authority mattered less than almost anywhere else in the West. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment may not have barred all civic religion (just ask the Supreme Court), but it expressly prohibited a federal church with theology schools, bishops and other features of Protestant as well as Catholic states in Europe. From the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints through the Church of Scientology, the freedom of visionaries and entrepreneurs to found new faiths and declare themselves alt-thorities has been a sacred American tradition.
Where Professionals and Experts Fit In
Professionalism of any kind was slow to take root in the United States. In fact, well into the 19th century the word connoted not so much learning or diligence as careerism. The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, whose spellbinding sermons made him a national celebrity in the golden age of American oratory, declared in 1863:
Professionalism narrows men. In law, in medicine, in the ministry, in art, in every profession, men are narrowed, because professionalism girds them with an iron hoop of selfishness.
Until the civil service reforms of the late 20th century in the United States as well as Europe, a diplomatic attaché was a well-born amateur forming part of an ambassador’s official entourage, with few defined responsibilities. Pierre de Coubertin and other founders of the Olympic movement insisted on excluding professional (i.e., working-class) competitors at all costs, and the ideal if not the ethos of amateurism survives.
Beecher’s vehemence suggests that the forces of professionalism were already mounting during the Civil War. In fact, the U.S. Army was one of the first American institutions to identify with professionalism — think of formal training at West Point inspired by Napoleon’s École Polytechnique. Only a few years after the Civil War, the former Wall Street lawyer Christopher C. Langdell began the professionalization of Harvard Law School, publishing the first casebook in any discipline and establishing merit and legal scholarship rather than family connections as sole grounds for faculty appointments. In government, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 ended the time-honored spoils system.
If the early 19th-century drift toward professionalism followed French models, the latter part of the century was swept away by the glitter of the German universities. Not only did the German language become essential in many disciplines, but significant numbers of American students in all fields — including the pioneering African-American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois — pursued advanced degrees in the recently unified German Empire.
Intellectual fashion was only one leg of the stool. Germany’s efficient (if often officious) bureaucracy and its linkage of university research with industrial might in fields from chemistry to optics made it appealing to most turn-of-the-century progressives promoting a science-based, professionalized America. World War I brought home the point with a vengeance: during the war, shortages of German organic coal-tar dyes rippled through the American economy, even briefly leaving the country without the red and blue dyes needed to manufacture a properly colorful version of Old Glory.
One nascent profession after another established its own association, while new credentials (certified public accountant appeared in 1887) and schools helped bring authority and status to previously empirical occupations like journalism and business. University presidents became public intellectuals and national celebrities. Harvard’s Charles W. Eliot, a chemist, launched the first successful set of Great Books, a “portable university” priced to sell to the middle class. Woodrow Wilson, today rightly out of favor for his sanctimony- laden racism, was a spokesman for the aspiration of white male professionals to rationalize American government and society.
The new academic experts exercised their authority not based on the general culture of lecture-circuit sages like Beecher and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but of professionalized science. (The versatile British genius William Whewell, who coined the word scientist around 1840, was simultaneously one of the last great generalists and one of the first apostles of specialization.)
In 1911, the pinnacle of codified authority came in the form of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a compendium of articles by 1,700 men and women pre-eminent in their fields. It was a summary of the age’s mix of optimism and Anglo-Saxon racial prejudice, but one broad enough philosophically to include an article on anarchism by a leading practitioner of the era, the Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin. Thanks to the internet, the 11th edition remains an icon — its online digital text a ghost of the thousands of pages that were appropriately printed on bible paper.
The sinking of the Titanic the following year and the devastation of World War I seemed to diminish all the Edwardian-age sages. The irreverence of Jazz-Age youth of the 1920s was cut short by the 1929 crash and the Depression of the 1930s.
It did not help the cause that the foremost American economic authority of the day, Yale’s Irving Fisher, predicted in September 1929 that stock prices had reached “a permanently high plateau.” Fisher, never one to be in for a penny, was left virtually bankrupt by the crash and in debt to the IRS. He was bailed out by Yale and wealthy relations, but was never quite able to shake the stigma of his flawed forecast.
To be fair, the Great Depression did not discredit the concept of expertise for long. Rather, it cleared the way for new cohorts, such as FDR’s Brain Trust of academic experts. Financial markets, too, were touched by a wave of professionalism. Benjamin Graham, a prominent Wall Streeter who was stung by his losses in the wake of the crash, worked out a new system for picking investments with David Dodd, a fellow Columbia University Business School professor. It was published in 1934 as a 725-page tome, Security Analysis. And after World War II it inspired Graham’s star student, a Harvard Business School reject named Warren Buffett.
Then came an advocate who would be home today among the Trumpists. Indeed, the writer and editor Albert Jay Nock became the harbinger of many of today’s alt-thorities. A learned former Episcopal priest (and minor- league baseball player), Nock proclaimed an elitist anarchism that rejected all state power in favor of a creative minority.
He described the horrific lynching of an African American in Chicago — not to condemn racism but to dramatize bloodthirsty savagery as the normal condition of the masses, whom he claimed did not deserve to be considered members of the human species. Describing himself in a 1943 memoir as a “superfluous man,” Nock aspired to (and has achieved) the status of a prophet of what today is called the Alt-Right.
In fact, he introduced an idea that followed the logic of libertarians like the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek to a bizarre conclusion: democracy as the enemy of freedom. As he observed in a column in The American Mercury magazine, were not Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union also based on the enthusiastic support of majorities?
Vietnam as Watershed
In the postwar decades, expanding opportunities in business and academia alike blunted attacks on established authorities, whether center-left or center-right. But the Vietnam War and stagflation of the 1970s changed all that. Indeed, if there is a decisive moment in the decline of authority, it is a tiny notice in 1975 in the magazine of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation that “Question Authority” bumper stickers were available for 25 cents plus postage.
In 1978, Nathan Glazer, a Harvard sociologist and neoconservative Democrat, published “The Attack on the Professions” in Commentary, the neocon opinion magazine, arguing that critical history of law, science, technology and medicine was unfairly discrediting authorities by suggesting self-interested motives in the expansion of higher education and professional credentials. One memorable book of the era, the historian Burton Bledstein’s Culture of Professionalism, was singled out for condemning the explosion of credentials around 1900 as a mask for middle-class privilege.
Read decades later, Glazer’s review is a reminder that the critique of experts, of science, and of the objective validity of facts originated in the 1970s and 1980s academic Left — and not with the supporters of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, whose gurus, like the economics Nobelist Milton Friedman, had elite credentials of their own. But it was the very visible policy fiascos of authority that led to the rise of the new alt-thorities. Among them: the quagmire of Afghanistan, the failure of mainstream economists to prevent the 2008 recession and the indecisiveness of the WHO and CDC during the Covid-19 pandemic. (As the journal Nature reported, it took two years for the WHO to recognize airborne transmission of the virus.)
A Map of the Stars
Today’s alt-thorities fall into multiple categories. The first comprises public intellectuals who began somewhere on the conventional political spectrum — usually the center-right — and moved to positions too extreme for their colleagues.
John Eastman fits this category nicely. He has a PhD in government (Claremont Graduate School) as well as a law degree (University of Chicago) and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. And he was a law school professor and dean before becoming the alleged chief architect of Donald Trump’s strategy to toss out the results of the 2020 election. So does Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of the slain former attorney general. He was a leading environmental lawyer before becoming a spokesman for the anti-vaccine movement.
Another candidate for the alt-thority hall of fame: the Canadian academic psychologist Jordan Peterson (University of Toronto), who had no strong political reputation when he was writing and lecturing on belief systems to great acclaim. But after he began to speak out against political correctness and anti-bias training, he discovered that he had been commissioned in the culture wars and that social media prophecy could mean a lucrative new identity as scourge of what he calls “cultural Marxism.”
Likewise, the renowned Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben was drawn into tribal politics by his critique of the coercive power of the Italian state and other governments in restricting personal freedoms in order to contain Covid-19. He became an alt-thority when his name was invoked in linking pressure to vaccinate for Covid to the Holocaust.
Other alt-thorities have abandoned essential parts of their identities in their journeys to the promised land. As a centrist economics professor and critic of allegedly greedy San Diego developers, Peter Navarro campaigned for Congress in 1996 with help from Hillary Clinton — whom he described two years later as “one of the most gracious, intelligent, perceptive, and, yes, classy, women I have ever met.”
But thereafter, he abandoned the liberal canon, renouncing globalism and viewing entente with China as naïve. By 2016, his views and increasingly combative style and inflammatory rhetoric made him a good fit with Trump’s right-wing populism.
Consider another alt-thority who made the long journey from the establishmentarian to deplorable. Simone Gold is an adoptive Californian with elite credentials. She’s a boardcertified emergency room MD (University of Chicago) with a law degree (Stanford) who had worked as an assistant to the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. But something happened on the way to the forum. She took up the antivaccine cause, becoming a convert to the use of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 — a remedy touted by President Trump but rejected by nearly all of Gold’s establishment peers.
Gold had been largely apolitical, but now was elevated by pro-Trump media to a vital niche as a professional dissenter, legitimizing Trump’s pandemic policies. She even endorsed claims that the 2020 election was stolen. In her telling, she started in the middle of the road and was “run over.” The process led to a place in the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6 and a 60-day Federal prison sentence.
I label the origins of another type of altthority as “magisterium drift.” The biologist Steven Jay Gould tried to resolve the potential conflict of science and religion by referring to their domains as “non-overlapping magisteria,” or teachings. But that hasn’t stopped many a Nobel laureate (and other top achievers) from trying to extend their influence beyond their expertise.
When the biologist E.O. Wilson, the acclaimed investigator of social insects, speculated on human society, he may have been right or wrong — but he had no firsthand results in the field. He was practicing what might be called “ant-thropology.” Another great Harvard scientist, B. F. Skinner, had likewise generalized from pigeons to Homo sapiens, leading the iconoclastic Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser to ask him after a seminar whether he was saying that “we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people.”
More recently, James Watson, the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the doublehelix structure of DNA, was stripped of most of his honors after reaffirming racist views on intelligence — a subject he had never studied.
Mehmet Oz, for his part, was a star of the medical establishment when he left his silo. Oz had a dazzling CV: joint MD and MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and the Wharton School of Business, residency in cardiothoracic surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian, vice-chair of the Columbia Medical School Department of Surgery. But he was no conventional med school professor. From his youth — he is the son of a Turkish-born physician — he has been an enthusiast of alternative New Age medicine, from homeopathy (a 19th-century German healing system) to reiki (a Japanese technique for healing through touch) and even astrology.
Until 2020 Oz’s style may have been controversial, but he was not an alt-thority. After all, the medical establishment’s views of alternative therapies make room for “mind-body medicine.” And many licensed MDs (especially in Europe) also practice some form of holistic therapy. Oz became a celebrity guest — “America’s Doctor” — on the Oprah Winfrey Network and hosted a syndicated Oprah-produced program of his own. But thereafter, the magisterium drift set in.
The Oprah brand had been declining by 2020, and Oz’s ratings were sinking with it. For him, as for Gold and Navarro, Trumpism and its main conduit, Fox News, appeared as a lifeline. Donald Trump himself had discovered that the vaccines developed by the pharmaceutical industry in the White Housetouted Warp Speed project had starring roles in his followers’ conspiracy theories. And with Oz’s encouragement, hydroxychloroquine (along with another anti-parasitic medicine, ivermectin) became a staple of the MAGA Covid-19 alt-medicine chest.
Mehmet Oz’s appeal as an alt-thority is, to many critics inside and outside medicine, yet another Trumpist assault on truth. But there is another way to see it: as the elevation of subjective experience and anecdotal evidence. I know a humanities professor who left a tenured position to become a homeopathy practitioner. She understands all the scientific objections to homeopathy. But it has worked for her and for people she knows, and that is enough.
Consciously or not, Dr. Oz echoes a oncepowerful populist movement in the United States — so-called eclectic medicine, which taught natural healing alongside conventional medical school topics. It slowly died out after a 1910 blue-ribbon study of medical education, the Flexner Report, discredited it as outmoded in an age of science.
The most complex of the alt-thorities (and the most sophisticated advocate for Donald Trump) is the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson. His study of ancient- Greek infantry tactics, The Western Way of War, is now in a second edition with the University of California Press. But it’s Hanson’s most recent book, The Case for Trump (2020) that makes him an alt-thority.
Other conservative scholars have defended assimilation (as opposed to multiculturalism), Western civilization, a strong military and even agrarian values. But Hanson differs from other pro-Trump intellectuals not only for his zest in attacking the “coastal elites” opposed by Trump, but also for his middle- American family-farm credentials.
The Case for Trump reads like a trial brief — one employing the strategy that criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin teaches his students at the University of Texas Law School: “Embrace the ugly baby.” That is, freely acknowledge your client’s flaws and turn them around in his or her defense. As in: Donald Trump is “vulgar, uncouth, divisive,” but he is also “often empathetic and concerned, despite or because of his storied past.”
Hanson is hardly the first classicist to expand his magisterium. The Princeton-educated Confederate Civil War veteran and star Johns Hopkins professor, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, helped promote the Lost Cause theory of the noble South. He even wrote an article comparing the Civil War to the conflict between Athens and Sparta. The Tory politician Enoch Powell had been the youngest full professor in the British Empire and the youngest brigadier general in the British army. But he is best known for a 1968 speech against immigration quoting Virgil’s image of “the Tiber foaming with much blood.”
After the 2016 election, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani approvingly quoted Tom Nichols’s book, The Death of Expertise:
To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.
But I believe that sentiment, appealing as it might be to frustrated establishment people (like me), is itself not the whole truth. We are living in an age of plural expertise — multithority, if you will. And many people are not so much rejecting all experts as insisting on the right to choose their own, just as 16thcentury religious dissenters did.
In the new pluralist world, there is even room for an anti-pluralist alt-thority: Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule, who has called for a “powerful presidency ruling over a powerful bureaucracy”– a truly deep state ruling in the “public good” whether the public likes it or not.
Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary, even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them — perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler.
In the world of multi-thority, name-calling and stigmatization are not persuasive tactics. Phrases like “fake news” — made popular by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and ironically appropriated by Donald Trump and his supporters — simply beg the question. The word “pseudoscience” does not magically neutralize fringe theories. Indeed, such language, implying that ordinary folks have been duped by crafty manipulators, brings out a phenomenon called “reactance.”
Before the 2016 election, The New York Times opinion writer Thomas B. Edsall quoted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s definition of reactance:
The feeling you get when people try to stop you from doing something you’ve been doing, and you perceive that they have no right or justification for stopping you. So you redouble your efforts and do it even more, just to show that you don’t accept their domination.
The first step in combating the wrong ideas of alt-thorities, then, is to treat most of them with respect, and to ignore rather than call further attention to the minority of hatemongers — as opposed to the merely Q-curious. Regard all others as critical thinkers who can consider new facts, not as deplorables.
The second step is to examine assumptions. Consider those about conspiracy theories. Some conspiracies really are real. Consider the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which hundreds of Black men were denied treatment even after the introduction of penicillin in 1943 in the interest of understanding the “natural progression of the disease.” Or consider the tobacco industry’s suppression of evidence linking cigarette smoking and cancer.
In 2016 an Oxford University cancer researcher, David Robert Grimes, published a mathematical theory of conspiracies, a relatively rigorous approach to the commonsense idea that as the number of people involved in a conspiracy grows, so does the likelihood of whistleblowing. The point is that instead of dismissing all conspiracy theories, it is important to examine just how each alleged conspiracy would have worked.
The third and most important strategy is to address alt-thorities’ greatest asset — what I call dissenter’s privilege. When authorities — government, scientific, academic — overwhelmingly adopt a position, the revisionist is transformed into a bold underdog.
Consider “intelligent design,” fundamentalist Christians’ alternative to Darwinian natural selection. Proponents need only to find a few obstacles, such as structures in nature like eyes that allegedly could not have evolved through natural selection.
But suppose “intelligent design” were not the province of alt-thorities but the establishment position instead? There would be many more difficult questions to answer about the nature and motivation of intelligence behind reality, with all its apparent cruelty, waste and arbitrariness.
The establishment can never return to the middle-class esteem of the pre-Titanic, pre- World War I world. It is at its strongest when admitting error and uncertainty and dialing down its rhetoric on the alt-thorities. It is impossible to simply “follow the science” where the science is still evolving. Paradoxically, a little humility may be the most powerful weapon in defending it.