The Technocrat’s Dilemma

Expert rule is destroying itself.
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“Even true things shouted from loudspeakers start to sound like lies.” So reads a loose translation of a line from Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia. The pandemic has made it easy to see what he meant. Public health organizations like the CDC and FDA, as well as politicians and bureaucrats at every level, have struggled with messaging amid a climate of widespread distrust that only seems to get worse the more they try to fix it. Even true things, shouted by wonks and technocrats, can begin to sound like lies.

The so-called “post-truth” era is described variably as arising out of postmodernism, right-wing revanchism, or the Internet itself. While these explanations have their merits, we pay too little attention to the way that technocracy, or rule by scientific and managerial experts, paradoxically contributes to the declining trust in science.

In an essay on the “scientization of politics,” the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas writes about how modern technocracy creates a barrier between scientists and politicians on the one hand and the general population on the other. The upshot is “a system of domination that tends to exclude practical questions from public discussion.” Habermas doesn’t mean that the public is barred from political debate, but rather that the debate tends to be divorced from the specifics that are deemed outside the ken of non-experts. In the absence of genuine debate, says Habermas, the public domain is “confined to spectacles and acclamation.” Media coverage of politics and policy thus tends to revolve around either trivia or attempts to garner consent. Expertise is trumpeted and deferred to, but with little attempt to understand or explain it.

One result is that we don’t ask how politicians should make use of scientific knowledge and technology. This process is confined to an elite that does not see it as a question. To them, the translation of science into policy is clear and unproblematic. Indeed, policymaking has increasingly blurred the line between itself and science — even going so far as to imply that policymaking is a kind of science, divorced from democratic passions and movements. President Kennedy summed up the sentiment in a 1962 press conference, when he said,

The fact of the matter is that most of the problems … we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments…. Now they deal with questions which are beyond the comprehension of most men.

This is the fundamental mystification of technocracy: that public policy can and should be a technical matter for specialists. We are, as Habermas puts it, subjected to “the illusory attempts of the technocrats to have political decisions be directed only by the logic of objective exigency” — or, as it’s put so often lately, we must “follow the science.”

But policy, quite obviously, cannot in itself be scientific. Science or expertise should be employed in making decisions about policy, but politicians and the experts advising them must ultimately make recommendations and decisions based on values, practical and moral commitments, and political realities and possibilities. These are not scientific and, in a genuine democracy, are meant to be subject to vigorous debate.

In the vacuum created by the exclusion of the public from real engagement in public discourse about science, that discourse can’t help but become merely rhetorical. Technocrats, when they speak in public, use the rhetoric of objective, neutral, scientific knowledge to justify policy decisions that are not — cannot be — fully “based on science.” It doesn’t matter whether this rhetoric is marshaled with good or cynical intent, whether it is backed by high-quality or shoddy research, whether it cherry-picks felicitous studies or gives a full accounting of the field in question. When they invoke science or expertise as a justification for the decisions that are necessarily outside science, politicians and experts are in effect using science as a tool to legitimize decisions, to place them outside the realm of democratic contestation, and to provide cover for the real practical considerations and political motivations that tend ultimately to guide decision-making.

Those decisions have tended more and more to favor private interests with influence over the bureaucracy and political apparatus, who prefer decision-making to take place outside of the public eye. Take the U.S. Federal Reserve’s response to the 2008 financial crisis. The technical justification for the Fed’s action to bail out overleveraged banks was largely reduced in public to a simple phrase: “too big to fail.” The phrase both implausibly simplified a highly complex crisis and implied a logic of objective exigency: there was no other way. Technocrats like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke construed their actions during the crisis as compelled by technical factors. Beyond this, there was little informed public discussion about the reasons for the crisis, which remains poorly understood as the straightforward result of a subprime mortgage crisis; about the actual structure of the global financial system; and about alternative resolutions. And many of the actual activities of the Fed during this period, especially its role in backstopping foreign central banks, remained little known at the time or since.

The public was reduced instead to a bystander forced to either accept or reject a rationale created by economists, who, when they’re not in government, make a great deal of money from the financial industry they helped to prop up. Both responses available to the public — acceptance and rejection — lie far from the ideal of democratic participation. They are expressions of powerlessness. The public must choose either a comforting but infantile trust in expertise that trades democratic responsibility for blind faith, or an enraged but adolescent distrust that trades democratic responsibility for nihilism.

In these instances, the technocratic state turns into almost the opposite of what it tries to be. Science gets used to legitimize policies guided by political interests. Technocracy inevitably puts science in the position of providing cover for power. Or, put another way, the attempt to depoliticize policy through the rhetoric of science — to “scientize politics” — has the necessary effect of politicizing science.

The damage is hard to overestimate. “Science” detaches from its actual practice to become as mystifying as divine right or a cult of personality. The bizarre public deification of politician-bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci should set off alarm bells — as should Fauci’s own insistence that “attacks on me are … attacks on science.” We should see instead that the attempt to construe political decisions as strictly scientific is itself an attack on science.

In the many failures of technocratic institutions over the last half-century, expertise has been marshaled to give the appearance that decisions favoring this or that elite interest are objectively grounded. The list includes a series of unnecessary wars, the deeply unequal and unjust economic effects of globalization, financial crises, and a general climate of cooperation and collusion between business and government. The harms of all these policy failures fall repeatedly on those excluded from technocratic knowledge and power, while the experts behind the failures — the economists, bankers, generals, consultants, CEOs, and managers — continue to accrue power and wealth.

The proliferation of conspiracy theories and outright irrationalism is certainly stoked by far-right chaos agents, but it is better understood as a misguided reaction to technocracy. As the late anthropologist David Graeber wrote,

This tendency to enshrine rationality as a political virtue has had the perverse effect of encouraging those repelled by such pretensions, or by the people who profess them, to … embrace “irrationalism.”

Just as hypocritical priests can doom a religion, experts doing politics in the guise of scientific rationality actually undermine it.

The technocratic response to misinformation and conspiracy theory only exacerbates the problem and further validates the most extreme reactions. Instead of responding with humility and transparency, technocrats and their media partners attempt to reassert epistemic control. They refuse to admit mistakes, they appeal to authority and credentials instead of evidence, and they attempt to shut down dissenting voices instead of taking up their challenges. They lump legitimate critiques together with the most outrageous disinformation, with the implicit message that more deference is needed, rather than more debate. As a result, their crusade for truth begins to look more and more like censorship and scapegoating from an establishment doing everything in its power to deflect responsibility for the cascading crises.

When technocrats construe misinformation as a problem of “information literacy” that must be solved by experts, they don’t just misdiagnose the ailment; they express a worldview that generates much of our information dysfunction to begin with. It is a view of misinformation that excuses cases where elites themselves have misinformed or lied. It papers over the ways technocrats have earned mistrust. It ignores the obvious problems with conceiving of truth as the remit of a special class. And it considers the public’s suspicion of technocrats not as an occasion for self-reflection, but only as another public policy problem to “solve.”

This suspicion of technocrats is driven by another distinguishing feature of public health messaging during the pandemic: an inordinate concern with messaging itself. On issues ranging from mask wearing early in the pandemic, to suspensions of vaccine approval, to the decision to weigh in on the public health ramifications of protests against racism, to the lab-leak hypothesis, public health officials have routinely shown themselves to be preoccupied with how they present themselves and their information. Instead of simply telling what they knew and what they didn’t, they have made guesses — usually poor ones — about how their messaging will play in public.

This is partly an upshot of a media-saturated environment where we are all constantly on display, but it also stems from the technocratic mindset. If public policy and the truth are considered the exclusive domain of the expert class, communication to the public is only a matter of optics and control, rather than a genuine attempt to educate while also giving the public a voice on decisions that affect them. Indeed, public relations and behavior control effectively become subdisciplines of the “science” of public policy.

This effort is largely self-defeating, since the Internet has exploded the channels of communication that might previously have made such top-down messaging effective. The public quickly sees health authorities playing (poorly) at public relations and tunes them out. Even true things, said with too much concern for how they look, begin to sound like lies.

Is there anything that can be done? A solution would have to start with an honest public accounting of the lies that have served as cover for elite failure. And it would have to involve serious reforms to divorce technocratic public institutions from corporate interests and make them more democratic, transparent, and accessible. A society cannot be made to function more rationally by ensconcing decision-making power in an elite whose actions are somehow meant to be driven by science. Instead, we need greater public understanding and input, putting science in the service of the people. Otherwise, the effort to make society rational is doomed to something like its opposite.

Alexander Stern, “The Technocrat’s Dilemma,” TheNewAtlantis.com, April 25, 2022.
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