It was the White House coronavirus clash of the heavyweights: Dr. Anthony Fauci, perhaps the most respected public health official currently working in the US government, against Peter Navarro, an eccentric Trump economic adviser who shares the president’s anti-China obsession (and once quoted a fake version of himself named Ron Vara — an anagram for Navarro — in a book he wrote).
Per Axios, Navarro got into it during a coronavirus task force meeting on Saturday. Navarro claimed that hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that Trump had been touting as a potential counter-coronavirus drug, had been shown to have “clear therapeutic efficacy” in foreign trials. When Fauci, who has become one of the most trusted medical experts on the subject, corrected him by pointing out that the evidence for the drug’s success against coronavirus was “anecdotal,” Navarro reportedly flew into a rage — raising his voice and (falsely) accusing Fauci of opposing the travel ban Trump imposed on China.
On Monday, CNN’s John Berman asked Navarro about the confrontation: “What are your qualifications to weigh in on medicine more than Dr. Anthony Fauci?” Navarro’s response: “My qualifications, in terms of looking at the science, is that I’m a social scientist.”
It’s only fitting that there’s a concept from social science — psychology, specifically — that helps us understand Navarro’s bluster. In a now-famous 1999 paper, Cornell University’s David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that people who did poorly on tests of abilities like logic and grammar “grossly overestimated” their own talents in those fields relative to peers. Competent people, by contrast, were less likely to overestimate their own talents. It seemed that the incompetent people knew so little that they were unable to adequately assess how little they knew — and thus were overconfident.
This phenomenon, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, may explain Navarro’s outburst. There are important differences in this case: Navarro has basic knowledge and expertise — he has a PhD in economics from Harvard, and actually warned Trump early on about the risks from coronavirus. He is not, however, an expert on medicine, and an economics doctorate doesn’t qualify him to give medical assessments over Fauci. But not being an expert also means that you’re unable to fully appreciate how little you know — and perhaps might even make you feel comfortable shouting down a preeminent expert in the field on an issue of vital national importance.
It’s not just Navarro, though. The entire Trump administration is an exercise in what happens when people without relevant expertise get to run the world’s most powerful government. Nothing makes that clear than its response to the coronavirus.
Our Dunning-Kruger pandemic
No figure, other than the president himself, better embodies the ethos of the Trump administration’s coronavirus effort than Jared Kushner.
A presidential son-in-law with no relevant experience in medicine or epidemiology, Kushner has nonetheless come to occupy a key role in coordinating the White House’s response to the virus. He has been previously failed in his roles attempting to solve the opioid crisis and the Israel-Palestine conflict (about which he once bragged about having read 25 books).
Early on in the crisis, per the New York Times, Kushner told Trump that the media was overhyping the virus to hurt his presidency. He later went on to convince Trump to hype an essentially nonexistent Google testing website, crowdsourced ideas for policy responses from said brother’s father-in-law, and launched a drive-through testing initiative that (as of early April) produced a grand total of five testing sites across the country.
Despite Kushner’s efforts, the testing situation in America remains dire. A dearth of adequate and rapid tests makes it harder for doctors and nurses to allocate scarce resources to the patients who need it. In the long run, the failure to test makes it harder for America to relax social distancing measures and move toward a South Korea-style surveillance model.
Failure after failure, both during the pandemic and his broader time in government, Kushner reportedly remains convinced of his own abilities — that he knows better than anyone else, including federal experts and state officials.
“Kushner shares the president’s view that governors are driving their residents into a panic by airing worst-case projections of medical needs,” the Times reports. “In conversations with advisers to the president, many of whom were stunned by the remark, Mr. Kushner has stressed what he considers his own abilities, saying that he has figured out how to make the government effective.”
By any reasonable lights, Kushner shouldn’t be anywhere near the White House’s coronavirus response — let alone coordinating it. Navarro, widely considered a crank in his own field of economics despite his Harvard degree, shouldn’t be in the White House — let alone working on the coronavirus response team. Yet Kushner is in on purely nepotistic grounds — and he reportedly brought Navarro in after discovering the latter’s book on Amazon.
This is the nature of the American government today.
The Republican Party and its allies in the right-wing media have spent the past several decades attacking the very idea of neutral policy expertise, treating academia as enemy-held territory rather than a source of important knowledge about the world. As a result, it became fertile ground for an arrogant anti-elite populist — a man who seems to believe he knows more than everyone about everything — to take it over and remake in his image.
Experts aren’t infallible, of course. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past two decades, it’s that our elite class is eminently capable of catastrophic failure.
Yet blanket skepticism of elites in Trump’s style is no more justified than blind faith in their pronouncements. In fact, it’s arguably quite a bit more dangerous, particularly when it comes to something like a pandemic response, a difficult task that requires understanding and synthesizing conclusions from a variety of technical and deeply specialized intellectual disciplines.
Instead, though, we have a president and a ruling party that instinctively distrusts the people most qualified to do that. It is under these conditions that Jared Kushner and Peter Navarro could end up playing key roles in confronting the biggest public health crisis in a century.
Trump, Kushner, and Navarro may be the ones suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. But Americans will be the ones suffering the consequences.