The Tyranny of Experts

A couple of years ago, the bees were dying.  Readers may recall the alarmist news coverage:  soon, we were told, the mass extinction of our buzzy little pollinators would destroy agriculture globally, resulting in widespread famines.  We must save the bees!

Meanwhile, I can’t walk to my car without fat, furry bees hovering around, ensuring the giant Sasquatch before them is just getting into his sensible subcompact hatchback, and not coming for their precious hive.  My yard is a dream for bees (especially before I got the winter weeds mowed up)—they particularly love the azalea bushes—and they seem to be doing fine.

The point is, had you listened to the expert apiarists, you’d think that civilization itself rested on the gossamer wings of black-and-yellow insects.  Sure, there probably is a problem with bee populations declining due to exposure to advance insecticides.  But the intense focus of apiarists in their field blinded them to other considerations.  They saw bee populations declining, and nothing else.

Experts know their fields so well, at times they can’t see the hive for the bees.  The dire prophecies of global bee deaths and the resulting famines never came, and we didn’t declare a national emergency over the decline in bee populations because there are a million other priorities.  We didn’t shut down industrial-scale agriculture to save the bees from insecticide, because to do so would result in millions of lost human lives.  The bees would have to figure it out on their own (indeed, as bee populations fell, beekeepers turned a tidy profit renting their hives to farmers, and that incentive encouraged the cultivation of more bees).

You can see where I’m going with this extended bee metaphor.  In the current coronavirus pandemic, we’ve leaned so heavily on the advice of medical professionals, we’re not considering the broader trade-offs.  The old expression “the cure is worse than the disease” is particularly apt here:  while social distancing and government-sanctioned “shelter-in-place” orders will surely slow the spread of infection and save lives, they will also result in massive economic destruction.

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