Have you noticed how many experts we have lately? Just check your Facebook feed, that’s where they congregate. About six months ago, it seems like a lot of my friends became experts in constitutional law. Then almost overnight, they were experts in public health and epidemiology. Before you could blink, they became experts in police procedure as well!
Forgive me, of course I’m being a little sarcastic. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. A large part of our society has decided that professional expertise is useful when it supports positions you already hold, but should be totally ignored when it does not. A couple examples.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we lifted up our doctors, nurses, and first responders as heroes. Of course they are! Then those same heroes—experts in their fields, soldiers on the front lines, many with decades of experience—told us some hard truths. They told us that to slow the virus, we had to stop gathering in large groups and visiting our vulnerable loved ones. That we needed to stay at home. That we need to wear a face mask when we go out. Some of these are terribly difficult to do and have real consequences. But the experts, our heroes, didn’t just make them up. The recommendations are based on scientific evidence, interpreted and communicated by the people who are qualified to do so. Yet astonishingly, I know many people who prefer their own judgment above sound medical advice. They go to parties. They don’t social distance. They won’t wear a mask at the grocery store. Some call it a personal liberty issue. Others call the virus a hoax. Either way, they are not listening to the experts.
After the murder of George Floyd, we all had some tough questions for our police departments. Even one preventable death in police custody is too many. But when our police chiefs stepped up to answer, they were shouted at and told that their departments ought to be abolished. Our patrol officers, our friends and neighbors, tried to tell us about how they do their jobs day-to-day. But the loudest voices yelled back that “all cops are bastards.” Not so, according to the experts. In the City of Denton, our police chief will tell you that experts in his field have been studying these problems. He has personally studied the work of the experts for many years, and that he has already implemented most of the reforms people are calling for. Long before George Floyd’s murder. Mayor Chris Watts has convened a community task force (that I am proud to serve on) to hear about how our police department functions, share experiences, and to help us all better understand what the experts are telling us.
The modern flow of information allows us all to access the same facts and tools the experts use. Yet some folks suppose that they can wield the tools just as well as the experts. It doesn’t help that many new sources offer mostly opinions dressed up as fact. Studies have also shown that when we encounter facts contrary to our strongly held views, unfortunately we tend to dig our heels in deeper.
And there’s a yet more troubling cause at play. Face masks and police reform really shouldn’t be partisan issues. Most Americans fundamentally agree about much, much more than we disagree. Yet somehow we find plenty to fight about. This is often because Republicans and Democrats live in vastly different worlds. Democrats are more likely to support mandatory face masks and other COVID-19 measures because statistically their communities are hardest hit. Republicans are more likely to support police, because the predominately Republican, more affluent suburbs have lower crime rates, fewer incidents of police violence, and better funded departments that can afford better officers and more training. Unfortunately this means that large segments of American society come at a problem from vastly different experience and almost speaking different languages.
So what are we to do in this divided world? The same things we have always done. First, recognize our own limitations. When I don’t know about something, my job is to listen to the people who do know before I form an opinion. I love them, my Facebook friends (or their shared link to “realfactsaboutstuff.com”) do not count as experts. Secondly, we have to understand the other guys’ perspective, and hear them out. We may not change our minds, but at the very least we will understand the issue better. That’s always the first step to a solution.