May 30, 2020

1558 words 8 mins read

There Are No Experts: Food, Riots, and Coronavirus

There Are No Experts: Food, Riots, and Coronavirus

Today’s post was supposed to be about the public health crisis caused by the Coronavirus quarantine, but something more urgent came up.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a fascinating cognitive bias that causes enormous human suffering. We see it in the prolonged over-reaction to Coronavirus and the riots following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The experts include politicians, police, and community activists (peaceful). Non-experts include anarchists and rioters, on the one side, and anti-riot militias, on the other.

The rioters are effectively getting what they want from the experts, but the militias–groups of armed civilians–are stopping the rioters. The rioters appear not even to try anything with these non-expert peacekeepers.

But police, national guard, and politicians look completely impotent. Rioters sacked a police station on Thursday. They’ve forced Target to abandon business in its home state. Only when a company or neighborhood is under the protection of a militia does the rioting stop.

This situation illustrates what some have long known: there are no experts. We are all just winging it. As Pamela Druckerman wrote in a fantastic NY Times opinion piece in 2014:

There are no grown-ups. We suspect this when we are younger, but can confirm it only once we are the ones writing books and attending parent-teacher conferences. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently.

The people we call experts suffer from a cognitive bias called Dunning-Kruger effect: they don’t realize they, too, are winging it. Thus, they make grand mistakes. And we all suffer for their incompetence.

While the classical definition of Dunning-Kruger attributes the bias low cognitive ability, it seems to affect people lauded as “experts disproportionately.” These supposed experts might score very well on cognitive tests. They probably did well in school. They’re not low-functioning. Instead, they’re fooled by their credentials.

We’ve seen this play out with Coronavirus. “Experts” tell us what’s going to happen and what we should do about it. We do what they say because they’re “experts.” But events don’t unfold the way the experts told us they would. So, the experts give us new guidance. We obey. It doesn’t work. And the cycle starts over.

A perfect example is mask-wearing. The experts initially said masks are pointless. Then, they told us masks are essential. Now, they’re back to saying masks are pretty much useless, except as a symbol (virtue signaling), or to give people the illusion of protection. Unless, of course, combined with gowns, goggles, and gloves and changed after each interaction with another person.

Experts also told us to self-quarantine, first for 15 days, then for two months, and, in some places, for eternity. Yet, states that broke quarantine “too early,” according to the experts, are doing better economically and with regards to Coronavirus than states that remain in perpetual lockdown.

We see a similar effect in Minnesota. The police are supposed to be experts at riot control. We all realize that police can’t prevent a riot in a free society. People wishing to riot always have the upper hand at first. They also tend to outnumber the police. Rioters are also free to respond and adjust to police tactics while police are constrained by rules of engagement, equipment, and top-down command and control, making them far less agile.

What we expect, though, is that, after an initial attack by rioters, police will mount an offense to quell the unrest. That’s what happened in the 1960s. But, somehow, police forces have lost that skill. They’ve convinced themselves that it’s better to let the rioters punch themselves out.

By the time the Minneapolis-St. Paul rioters punch themselves out, Minneapolis will look a burned-out rats nest, a failed city, a new Gary or East Chicago, Indiana.

Enter the Non-Experts

Non-experts have three advantages over experts, especially in the case of riots. First, non-experts generally form voluntary groups with little or no top-down control. Next, non-expert groups invent their own rules of engagement, which they can mutate to meet the needs of the moment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, non-experts know they are non-experts and are, therefore, less confident in their own decisions.

Rioters are non-experts, but so are the anti-riot militias that have formed in parts of Minneapolis. These self-forming militias have been far more effective than police or national guard at preventing looting and mass destruction. Additionally, these militias have no conflict of interest, unlike the Minneapolis Police Department. After all, it was an MPD officer who killed George Floyd, sparking the riots. As one of the militia members said to Personal Defense Weekly:

“We definitely don’t agree with the looting, but we do agree with the cause of the protest,” one man said.

Who knows, there may also be a sort of mutual respect between the militias and rioters. Both are non-experts. Plus, the armed militias are not the target of the rioters' rage. The police are.

Or Maybe It’s Not the Experts' Fault

I’m going to pose a radical thought here. The problems with the Coronavirus response relates to the problem of riots. And the cause of the riots and food shortages (misallocations) are caused by the Coronavirus response. In other words, it’s all the same, small problem: over-reliance on “experts.”

In most cases, experts do not suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect, but that we (especially the media) practice Dunning-Kruger on behalf of the experts. We place too much confidence in the words of experts, often much more confidence than the experts place in their own words.

Look at Dr. Fauci. Rarely if ever, does Dr. Fauci make statements with indicators of high confidence. He says, “I don’t know” and “we don’t know” a lot. He admits that masks might be more effective as symbols than as virus controls. His actual words are very humble and self-questioning.

But people, especially headline writers, ignore his uncertainty, his equivocations, and his caveats. They run with the most extreme part of his statements as if they were laws of physics. These inflammatory headlines lead people to believe some scientific breakthrough had occurred that they are unfit to challenge.

More importantly, the media have a strong and open bias. They want the lockdown to continue until it’s too late for President Trump to benefit from a revived economy. And they’re happy to make you and me suffer for their political aims. Combined with our cultural over-regard for people touted as “experts,” this leads to a flock of obsequious order-takers doing whatever some 22-year-old headline writer at CNN tells us.

It’s not the experts who suffer from Dunning-Kruger, it’s us.

Likewise, your grocery store is probably running low on meat. Even restaurants are running out. My local Jimmy John’s sandwich shop posted paper signs yesterday listing the kinds of meats they’re out of and asking customers' patience when ordering sandwiches than usually contain those ingredients. Today, Fox News ran a horrible story about millions of pigs, cattle, and poultry being euthanized and cremated because Coronavirus shut down the supply chain to commercial distribution.

Another group of experts–efficiency experts–is mostly to blame for America’s inability to adjust in an emergency, as I wrote about May 9.

Decentralization Is the Answer

All of this comes down to the problem of centralization and top-down control. And centralization results from a desire to shift burdens to someone else.

Professional, government-run policing began in the United States in the 1830s1. Before that, citizens patrolled their neighborhoods through a watch system. What was the impetus for shifting to government-run policing?

It wasn’t a crime wave. It was burden-shifting.

The watch system focused on significant crimes and big problems, not petty crimes. But merchants in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and other growing cities wanted to shift the cost and bother of protecting their businesses to someone else. They lobbied their city government to establish police forces, charge everyone taxes to support the police force, and relieve the merchants of the cost of protection2.

Like most government-run systems, policing grew. Police departments grew in size, power, and influence. They became more expensive and more extensive. With their growth came the need for efficiencies and top-down control. With top-down control came rigidity and fragility.

The result is that self-organized militia—the modern equivalent of the old watch system—are more effective at riot control than are modern police departments.

In medicine, rogue doctors who prescribe hydroxychloroquine and zinc, or hydrocortisone, see better outcomes for their patients than hospitals that follow top-down guidance from “experts.”

In food distribution, we see farmers' markets thriving with produce, meat, and customers while big-chain store shelves sit empty.

Centralization leads to fragile systems that work well when everything goes as planned but collapse when anything goes wrong.

In good times, decentralized systems just get by despite their inefficiencies and redundancies. But decentralized system adjust to disruptions almost without notice. In fact, decentralized systems are often antifragile; they benefit from disruption the way farmers' markets have benefitted from Coronavirus quarantines.

The answer to Coronavirus, riots, and food shortages involves the same set of solutions:

  1. Decentralize decision-making and control.
  2. Tolerate inefficiency and redundancy.
  3. Place as much doubt in the predictions of experts as you do in your own projections.

This means reducing the size and extent of police forces and returning to neighborhood watches for routine patrols and militias for riot control.

  1. Potter, Gary, PhD, The History of Policing in the United States, ↩︎

  2. ibid. ↩︎