Experts Are for Facts, Amateurs Are for Analysis

President Trump and his aides are willing to let specialists gather data, but trust only their own conclusions.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

During testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt described a new proposed rule that would require the agency to publish the data behind all studies used to guide clean-air and clean-water regulations.

“It seems to me it’s common sense that as we do rule making at the agency, we base it upon a record, scientific conclusions, that we should be able to see the data and methodology that actually caused those conclusions,” Pruitt said. “We’re agnostic about who adopts the study.”

As my colleague Robinson Meyer wrote earlier this week, the rule threatens to upend the environmental rule-making process. A cynical (and perhaps accurate) reading would be that Pruitt is seeking to sandbag clean-air and clean-water rules. Even so, taking Pruitt at face value shows that the proposed rule fits into a vogue in certain conservative circles for what might be called DIY analysis. It is less a rejection of scientific evidence than a rejection of scientists’ analysis of evidence, partnered with a belief that anyone can, and should, do the analysis himself. This mind-set endorses peer review, but considers a peer anyone who deems himself to be so.

It’s easy to find experts bemoaning the downfall of expertise, but this isn’t that. President Trump has opened new frontiers in a war on facts, but this isn’t that, either. The EPA isn’t abolishing the use of data per se. It’s simply discounting the value of the analysis of those data performed by its own experts, hired and trained for that task, and opening up the information for any takers to reanalyze to their own conclusions.

Jason Zengerle’s essential profile of Devin Nunes, the controversial chair of the House Intelligence Committee, offers another example of this tendency to accept expert fact-gathering but to reject expert analysis. Long before Nunes achieved notoriety for his role in breaking the committee during the Russia investigation, he made a name for himself among colleagues as an amateur sleuth:

Nunes could go to great lengths in pursuit of his suspicions. In late 2012, he said he heard from “informants” that Obama administration officials were ignoring evidence in a cache of documents collected from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, showing that Al Qaeda was much stronger than the administration publicly contended. Nunes took these allegations to the Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, who in turn questioned intelligence officials. Rogers was satisfied with their answers and told Nunes that he believed that the documents, which were being analyzed by Defense Intelligence Agency officials at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., revealed nothing quite so significant.

Nunes didn’t buy it and tried to conduct his own search, but came up with nothing else. In another case, he sent a staffer to interview a drone operator at a U.S. base in Germany who Nunes had heard had footage of the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, during a fatal attack on September 11, 2012. As it turned out, the operator hadn’t been involved in Libya at all. Mike Rogers, then the committee chair and a former FBI agent, had little patience for these antics, but, Zengerle wrote, “Nunes was not chastened; instead he grew discouraged that Rogers wasn’t pursuing even more leads.”

It is no surprise that Nunes has found himself in easy alliance with Trump. The president and his administration have repeatedly exemplified this tendency, in realms besides Pruitt’s new rule. Consider Trump’s reaction to Russian hacking in the 2016 presidential election, which was not to discount the evidence of hacking the intelligence community had gathered, but to dispute the conclusion that Russia was behind it, preferring to offer his own theory. (“Somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”)

This tendency has persisted since the election. Is it a coincidence that Trump has sidelined the State Department in his pursuit of talks with North Korea, cutting former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson out of the process entirely in favor of CIA Director Mike Pompeo—privileging those who collect intelligence over the recommendations of professional diplomats? Or that Trump then chose Pompeo to replace Tillerson?

The Trump administration may represent an apotheosis of the DIY-analysis tendency, but it did not originate it. The tendency exists in the more-sophisticated forms of climate-change denialism, for example, which do not argue that temperatures are not rising—after all, the data are incontrovertible—but instead dispute the scientific consensus that it is caused by humans. These sophisticated denialists offer alternative theses, from cyclical climate change to little ice ages. They do not reject the data collected by experts; they simply analyze that data to a different end.

The same impulse is at play in conservative critiques of the press and higher education. Liberal professors are told to stick to teaching information to avoid classroom bias, even though higher education necessarily involves interpretation and analysis. Reporters are chastised for adding interpretation and analysis into reports and scolded to stick to the facts—as though news reporting could be or ever has been a dry recitation of disconnected facts without selection, context, or prioritization.

In both cases, the critique arises not from a substantial change in higher education or the press (even though both institutions may have moved somewhat left over a period of decades), but rather from the new expectation that the reader or student will have the tools and context to analyze the raw data as effectively as the trained scholar or reporter.

At its heart, this tendency is optimistically democratic, positing faith in the ability of any individual to do the work of a climate scientist or intelligence analyst or Schopenhauer scholar. It’s fed by the power of the internet, which offers unprecedented access to raw information and forums in which amateur analysts can publish and receive attention for their interpretations.

Nor is it confined to conservatives; from Louise Mensch’s Twitter feed to my email inbox, Trump’s critics have a sheaf of novel theories about intelligence, constitutional law, and criminal investigations. As Kurt Andersen has written, leftist insistence on questioning authority that flowered in the 1960s connects directly to this instinct. But the current president has made this tendency core to his political appeal, launching endless waves of attacks on media outlets, law-enforcement agencies, and civil servants as hopelessly biased in their interpretation of facts, and encouraging and promoting alternative theories.

Questioning authority is good. Skepticism in moderation is important. Ultimately, however, few ordinary citizens are equipped to process raw intelligence or analyze the effects of particulate matter on health. The benefits of painstakingly developed expertise extend beyond the simple accrual of facts to include contextual knowledge, judgment, and intuition. As any victim of an overzealous DIY home-improvement project can attest, there are many tasks that yield to enthusiasm—but there also comes a time when it’s wisest to call in a professional.