Topic: Professions & Institutions

Presuming Expert Bias, and the Clarke Affair

The firestorm around the publication of Richard Clarke’s book Against All Enemies and his simultaneous testimony regarding his allegations of negligence by the Bush Administration in its anti-terrorism efforts have brought into sharp focus a modern dilemma: is there such a thing as an unbiased expert? The Bush Administration’s rebuttal of Clarke’s explosive charges has focused on his motives and such confounding and supposedly tainting factors as his friendships with Democrats, his political affiliation, his disappointment at being passed over for a promotion, and his eventual monetary reward for producing a best selling book. The Weekly Standard, in commenting on the controversy, has noted that if nothing else, Clarke has ensured that no future administrations will ever allow holdovers from the other party’s regime to remain in a National Security post, regardless of their expertise. If it is right, and it almost certainly is, this means that we have moved from a mindset where the presumption is that public servants are not motivated by partisan bias to a mindset where the presumption is that they are.

This qualifies as old news, at least in Washington. It is this presumption that Justice Scalia is fighting when he refuses to yield to demands that he should recuse himself from deliberations on the Energy Policy Task Force case. It is this presumption that drove the unprecedented accusations that the U.S. Supreme Court decided Bush v Gore on partisan preference rather than legal philosophies. But should it take firm hold across American society, the belief that all expert positions are driven by bias rather than judgment will lead inexorably to darkness, not light. It embraces the post-modernist conceit that there is no truth, only subjective distortions of it, permitting any opinion, no matter how ill-derived, to be as “valid” as any other.

Every expert has biases. Those experts who are both professional and ethical recognize their biases and work to overcome them. Founding Father John Adams, it is said, knew he was doing the right thing when he was certain that it would injure his own interests.

Honorable and ethical individuals are very capable of rendering opinions that are inimical to the interests of friends, do not advance their careers, or involve other sacrifices in the pursuit of truth. The difficulty is determining who the honest and ethical individuals are, and more difficult still, whether a generally honest and ethical individual is behaving that way in a particular instance.

In this last regard, there is no question that public attitudes have changed over the years. The public no longer automatically accepts the representation that an expert opinion is the product of careful analysis rather than self-interest. Many things produced this change. Court TV and “Law and Order” have shown us that “expert testimony” can be purchased to fit any argument. We have seen Wall Street investment experts warp their advice to clients in order to prop up corporate cronies. We have watched highly publicized instances in which individuals took obviously absurd positions because it was demanded by their job or industry, such as the famous line of tobacco executives raising their hands to declare before Congress that they “did not believe that tobacco was addictive.” We know beyond question that our elected representatives, our governance experts, take positions, sometimes passionately, that are determined more by a desire for votes, continued power or campaign funds than by conscience or consideration. We have all seen scenarios like that played out in Maryland a few years ago, in which Governor Parris Glendening suddenly became an environmental activist, reversing his earlier positions and following the lead of a new addition to his staff. When he subsequently divorced his wife to marry that comely staff member, it became clear what had turned the governor greenÂ…and it wasn’t reading EPA studies.

Perhaps more than any other factor, we now know that experts are like us. We know that we shade our stated views to please our families and friends, and that the need to pay the bills and the mortgage might exert some influence over our views on political issues. We know how often we have given a boss or a spouse or a key client the opinion they wanted rather than the opinion that might have involved some unpleasant consequences.

Experts no longer can expect their opinions to be accepted without some inquiry into the factors that might have influenced them. It is the strength of their analysis and the facts that support them that have to persuade, not simply their reputations or accomplishments. If Richard Clarke is going to make a lot of money with his criticism of the Bush Administration and the timing of it, it is both fair and prudent to inquire how the size of his potential reward might affect the tenor of his opinions. It follows, therefore, that it is negligent for journalists to behave as if sources of potential bias aren’t important. Political consultants, to name one disgraceful example, should always be forced to declare whether they have contracts or job prospects with the parties that benefit from their declarations as talking heads. Historians should not be presumed to have no political preferences or personal allegiances coloring their views.

We ought to start with the assumption that experts have biases, determine what they are, and examine them in light of the opinions the experts produce. A biased argument can still be a persuasive one, and some individuals have the courage, integrity and self-control to overcome bias. But the only time we can be absolutely certain that conflicts and biases haven’t influenced an expert opinion is when we know that the expert will suffer for it. Adams was right about that.

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