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Health & Science

Opinion: The Irresponsible Rejection of Expertise

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Abraham Schwab

My daughter recently had a skin infection. It wasn’t life threatening, but, by the time we got it diagnosed and began treatment, it had spread over several of her extremities. And we could have caught it sooner. We noticed the first manifestations of the infection a full week before we began treatment. Problem was, we didn’t know what we were looking at it. We thought it was just a wound that a waterproof bandage had made look a little worse. Our mistaken judgment let the infection spread far more than it would have if we had started treating it right away. When we showed it to a physician, they were able to prescribe both a topical and universal antibiotic treatment that cleared up the infection. 

I’ve been wandering the halls of hospitals as an ethicist for nearly 20 years, so I have a dangerous amount of knowledge about medical practice. I know enough to appear well-informed to your average person, but not enough to have any idea what I’m really talking about. 

My daughter’s condition could have turned out much worse. I could have refused to even have her looked at by a physician. I could have stayed steadfast in my diagnosis that it was just some blisters that had randomly showed up at the same time. I could have willfully maintained confidence in my ignorance. And that would have been irresponsible. 

We live in an increasingly knowledge-rich and increasingly-complex society. Nearly every facet of our lives involves some kind of technological or mechanical expertise that outstrips the ability of a single individual to master them all. Accordingly, we have become increasingly dependent on the expertise of others as they become increasingly dependent on our expertise as well. 

And yet, there is a certain appeal to rejecting the expertise of others. It emphasizes our independence. It demonstrates our general competence. It illustrates how we can break free from reliance on others. But when we are responsible to care for and help others, as I am for my daughter, this rejection is irresponsible. 

 

It should come as no surprise by now that the Trump administration has rejected, albeit implicitly, yet another kind of expert. They have already rejected climate scientists, military personnel on transgender recruits, and experts on the viability of coal as an energy source. And now, approximately a year into the Trump presidency, they have failed to appoint a Bioethics Commission. 

The reasons for this failure may be multi-faceted, from Pence’s theocratic leanings (who needs a bioethics commission when the answers are clearly established by one’s religion), to a seemingly generalized rejection of expertise, to the apparent inability of the Trump administration to fill key roles in the administration. Regardless, the failure is irresponsible. It removes the possibility of drawing on expertise to address difficult issues that arise in health care policy and research. 

It’s hard to get particularly worked up about this particular failure, though. The clear and present harms that the Trump administration produces daily may make this particularly irresponsible failure more like a molehill than a mountain. That said, I am not willing to let the Trump administration’s repeated and willful irresponsible choices let them off the hook for each and every irresponsible move they make. 

Abraham Schwab is a Fort Wayne associate professor of philosophy and medical ethicist.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff, management or board of Northeast Indiana Public Radio. If you want to join the conversation, head over to our Facebook page and comment on the post featuring this column