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Saturday, December 21, 2019

More on the role of academic experts

Andrew Ferguson in The Atlantic offers a new contribution to the debate over academic experts in public debate and public affairs and he pulls no punches in arguing that academic experts have nothing to add to public-policy debates. He aims his current ire at historians in the current impeachment debate, but spares some for nuclear scientists who argued for disarmament in the '80s and doctors arguing for stem-cell research in the '00s. He also questions the motives of the "obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts" who enjoy the ego boost of seeing their names alongside better-known professors. As I said, he pulls no punches.

I do not reject the participation of experts as completely as Ferguson does, because I believe there is a place for that participation. Ferguson's pithy point is "[i]f I want to understand the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, Sean Wilentz [the Princeton history professor] will be my go-to guy, I promise. But Trump’s impeachment, and contemporary politics in general?" The problem is that the Whiskey Rebellion (or some other historical event) might be essential to understanding contemporary politics, making that expertise essential to understanding contemporary politics. The same for nuclear scientists. Ferguson dismisses their actions as assuming that "knowing how to build a bomb was the same as knowing whether it should be used," ignoring that scientists' knowledge of the bomb's effects is relevant, thus helpful, to the political question of whether the bomb should be used. I agree that some of this is argument from authority. But some of this input from experts is necessary, proper, and essential.

Which brings us to Ferguson's insistence that "[t]he whole democratic enchilada rests on the assumption that when it comes to prudential matters of public importance, the view of the stevedore is as valuable as that of the Princeton professor." But I am not sure that is democracy's assumption (putting aside that we are a republic, not a democracy). Democracy assumes that the stevedore and the Princeton professor's votes count equally in selecting representatives and that the stevedore and the Princeton professor have an equal right to speak on matters of public concern. But democracy does not assume the surrender or rejection of any role for experts and expertise. Nor does democracy assume that, on a matter on which the Princeton professor offers an expertise that the stevedore lacks, the stevedore's views should be as influential on policy decisions. Just as I expect the stevedore's views should be more valuable and influential on the question of working conditions on the docks.

Ferguson is on the same page as Paul, Eric, and others who criticize academics for trading on their prestige in opining on matters beyond their expertise; the trick then becomes figuring out when those academics are truly speaking as useful experts and when they are speaking as credentialed citizens (as Brian Kalt put it, "your average lawyer"). But Ferguson goes one step further in rejecting all expertise.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 21, 2019 at 06:12 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


Because their work is focused on doing rather than researching or teaching, these experts may benefit from being reminded that their primary role is to educate: They are there to help the judge and jury understand why their analysis is correct.

Posted by: FUN | Jan 7, 2020 6:00:21 AM

Fascinating thread. It does seem to be a disease that is more endemic to law professors and maybe historians, though -- this arguing from authority disorder that appears to have set Ferguson (and perhaps some others) off. I think I agree with the post that there really can't be any categorical rejection of "expertise" as it might be useful to current political events or choices. Equality of voting shares is neither here nor there epistemically. On the other hand, for any of us who have watched a colleague (or two) wallow in the attention that comes from opining loudly on that which s/he barely understands, bringing an institution's good name down with them as s/he preens for that attention, there may be some formulations of the objection that, though not fully categorical, approach it. Then again, maybe more conversations like this one can reinforce a social cue here or there that such folks should self-censor a bit more often.

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Dec 24, 2019 12:59:15 PM

@ Orin,

Very well. We'll do better with our next conversation.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Dec 23, 2019 2:58:38 PM


The condescension is entirely yours. I don't have any idea who you are, so I don't know anything about you. But given that you're accusing me of bad faith for accurately characterizing your comment, I'll pass on starting over.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 23, 2019 7:35:22 AM

@ Orin,

1) Yes;

2) I don't see how you can reach that conclusion, seeing that this entire discussion is quite general. Whereas, the argument you seem to be setting up is that some specific professor may be a useful expert and, therefore, "professors" are useful experts. However, I know you understand that arguing from the specific to the general is unconvincing. In addition, I know you understand that there is a difference between a distributive term and a collective term. Therefore, you know that when I refer to a group as a collective term (i.e. professors) it is incorrect to interpret that term as a distributive term (i.e. every single professor). Said a bit more simply, I may use the term "department" as a collective term and say, "That department is inefficient". It would be a poor interpretation indeed to interpret that sentence in a distributive sense (i.e. every sing person who works in that department is inefficient").

And since I know that you know this, I really can only infer that you deliberately interpreted my post in the worst way possible, which--unfortunately--does little to contradict my collectivist interpretation.

3) To guard against further deliberate bad faith interpretations, let us assume that you'll next argue that the term "history" is a collective term rather than a distributive term. I would caution, first, that that distinction makes little sense when applied to "history" and, second, that using the term "understand history" makes history a single thing which can be understood.

4) I don't mind having the discussion, but your attempt at a witty quip, unfortunately, was both full of condescension and not terribly on point. Perhaps we could start over?

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Dec 23, 2019 4:24:59 AM

Thegreatdisappointment, you seem to be arguing that 1) some people wrongly think that history is one monolithic thing, and 2) professors are one monolithic thing.

Marty: Of course!

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 22, 2019 9:49:33 PM

Orin: Can I sign your comment?

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Dec 22, 2019 7:37:11 AM

I truly enjoy people talking about "history" and understanding today's politics as if "history" is some monolithic thing. History gets re-remembered and re-interpreted by each generation. Which means there could be two or three competing versions of "history" at any given time in a society.

And, truly, the Arming America debacle pretty much put about a 75 year moratorium on history professors having any credibility when it comes to discussing *anything* regarding public policy.

Lastly, law professors are patently *awful* at using history for academic purposes. About the only discipline I would trust less in giving me a history lesson is political science.

There may, sometimes, be a time when an expert can lend some insight, but I don't see how it can come from the academy. Academics (especially legal and political science academics) don't even make practical contributions to the real-world part of their discipline.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Dec 22, 2019 2:33:06 AM

I agree with all of this, with the caveat that I think it's extremely unlikely that understanding the Whiskey Rebellion is essential to understanding contemporary American politics.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Dec 21, 2019 9:20:50 PM

Wish there weren’t people named Andrew Ferguson bashing academics. — Andrew Ferguson (the other one).

Posted by: Andrew Ferguson | Dec 21, 2019 8:09:21 PM

Ferguson seems to be mixing up a bunch of distinct claims:

1) Subject matter experts shouldn't pretend they have expertise outside their lane (which I think is right);
2) Group letters often are joined by people with little expertise in the question (also often right);
3) In partisan times, there is no value in known and trusted thought leaders on one side saying their own side is wrong (which I think is quite wrong); and
4) A knowledge of history is irrelevant to today's politics (which I think is mostly wrong).

It doesn't work so well to mix these different claims together.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 21, 2019 6:29:34 PM

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