I used to believe the world was run by experts who knew what to do. I have believed that the best response to a crisis is to listen to the experts and do what they say because they know best and can be trusted to have our interests at heart.
Yeah, I was an idiot. In my defense, I was young. Now I know better.
The list of expert failures is long. The Vietnam War, which preceded my youthful enthusiasm for experts, was launched by what David Halberstam mockingly called “the best and the brightest” in a book of the same name.
They were well educated, or at least well qualified, spoke with competence and enjoyed the esteem of other members of the ruling class. And they produced a debacle of the first order.
Since then, we’ve seen many instances of expert incompetence – just look at the management of the economy right now – but one of the most striking is the continued generational incompetence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. and the rest of the public-health establishment to deal with epidemics.
The latest example is the government’s handling of monkeypox, which the Biden administration has just declared a public health emergency. As the New York Times recently reported, the US government had 20 million doses of monkeypox vaccine available less than a decade ago. (It’s actually a smallpox vaccine called Jynneos, which is also effective against monkeypox.) But when we needed it, the so-called National Strategic Stockpile had only 2,400 doses on hand, enough to vaccinate only 1,200 people.
How did it happen? Bureaucratic incompetence and procrastination by the Food and Drug Administration. Bureaucrats let the vaccine expire without being replaced because they wanted to develop a freeze-dried version with a longer shelf life. But FDA approval delays meant the new vaccine didn’t appear even when the old vaccine expired. The end result was that when a vaccine was needed, nothing was available.
“I want people to know how badly it turned out considering the amount of money and resources that went into it,” says former CDC official Dr. Ali S. Khan.
Well yes. Worse still, that vaccine – which was also intended to deal with a bioterrorism-inspired smallpox epidemic – was stored outside the United States at the Danish manufacturer’s facilities, which caused its own logistical problems.
“The CDC was supposed to have spent the past 2+ decades preparing for the specific scenario of ‘What if someone resurrects smallpox and releases it as a bioweapon’. Now, when faced with a virus that is literally the “story mode smallpox” they fail,” said researcher Nicholas Weaver. observed. Monkeypox “is not hyper-virulent,” he notes, and vaccines, treatments and techniques, such as contact tracing, designed for smallpox work just as well. Yet the CDC has “completely and utterly failed to prevent this growth.”
Well, it’s not the first time. The incompetence of the health facility vis-à-vis COVID is infamous. First, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, downplayed the threat, only to turn on a dime and declare it deadly. The CDC developed a flawed test for COVID, then for months blocked other institutions from distributing competing tests that worked. (He does the same with monkeypox tests.) Fauci has also executed a 180-degree turn on masking and promoted lockdowns, which the World Health Organization says does more harm than good.
But the CDC’s incompetence goes back further than that. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the CDC also failed, admitting its performance was “rocky” as it found itself outmatched in many ways by health officials in countries like Nigeria. This debacle, five years before COVID emerged, should have been a wake-up call – but the agency slept.
And of course, the CDC’s performance during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, when Fauci first rose to fame, was abysmal. Fauci in particular pushed the misconception that ordinary heterosexuals were at risk of contracting AIDS in the same way as homosexuals and intravenous drug users, which was not true. This has both spread unnecessary fear and diluted efforts to help at-risk populations. There’s not much of a learning curve here.
We would like to live in a world where we can trust the experts, both to know what to do and to promote policies that will help us. But we don’t live in that world. Maybe we need better experts. The ones we have don’t seem particularly expert at all.
Or maybe we have to think for ourselves.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.