Once, I believed that the world is run by experts who know what to do. I believed that the best answer 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 a long one. The Vietnam War, which predated my youthful enthusiasm for experts, was launched by what David Halberstam mockingly called “the best and the brightest” in a book by the same name.
They were well-educated, or at least well-credentialed, spoke with skill and enjoyed the regard of other ruling-class people. And they produced a debacle of the first order.
Since then, we have seen numerous instances of expert incompetence — just look at the management of the economy right now — but one of the most striking is the ongoing, generational ineptitude of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the rest of the public- health establishment in dealing with disease outbreaks.
The latest example is the government’s handling of monkeypox, which the Biden administration just declared a public-health emergency. As The New York Times recently reported, the US government had 20 million doses of monkeypox vaccine less than a decade ago. (It’s actually a smallpox vaccine called Jynneos, 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 just 1,200 people.
How did this happen? Bureaucratic incompetence and Food and Drug Administration foot-dragging. Bureaucrats allowed the vaccine to expire without being replaced because they wanted to develop a freeze-dried version with a longer shelf life. But FDA delays in approval meant that the new vaccine didn’t appear even as the old vaccine expired. The end result was that when a vaccine was needed, nothing was available.
“I want people to know how poorly this went given the amount of money and resources put into it,” declares former CDC official Dr. Ali S. Khan.
Well, yes. Worse yet, this vaccine—which was also intended to deal with a bioterror-inspired smallpox outbreak—was stored outside the United States in the facilities of the Danish manufacturer, which caused logistical issues of its own.
“The CDC was supposed to have spent the last 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 ‘Story Mode Smallpox’ they fail,” researcher Nicholas Weaver observe. 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 “failed, completely and utterly, to prevent this growing.”
Well, it’s not the first time. The health establishment’s incompetence with regard to COVID is infamous. First, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Anthony Fauci downplayed the threat, only to turn on a dime and pronounce it deadly. The CDC developed a defective test for COVID, then for months blocked other institutions from distributing competing tests that worked. (It’s doing the same thing with monkeypox tests.) Fauci also executed a 180-degree turn on masking and promoted lockdowns, which the World Health Organization concluded do more harm than good.
But the CDC’s ineptitude goes farther back than that. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the CDC also failed, admitting its performance was “rocky” as it saw itself outperformed in many ways by health officials in countries like Nigeria. That debacle, five years before COVID’s emergence, should have been a wakeup call — but the agency slept on.
And of course, the CDC’s performance during the 1980s AIDS outbreak, when Fauci first became famous, was abysmal. Fauci in particular pushed the false notion that run-of-the-mill heterosexuals were at risk for AIDS in the same fashion as gays and intravenous-drug users, which wasn’t true. It both spread unnecessary fear and diluted efforts to aid at-risk populations. There’s not much of a learning curve here.
We’d 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 especially expert at all.
Or maybe we need to think for ourselves.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.