Critical Thinking & COVID-19: Trump’s “Expertise”
Donald Trump was elected president and hence he has the legal authority conferred by this office. By having legal authority is not the same as having authority as an expert. In this essay, I will assess Trump’s authority as a medical expert.
It might seem unfair to judge Trump’s medical expertise—all previous American presidents would also fall short here. But this must be done because Trump regularly contradicts the claims of public health experts, including Dr. Fauci. One example was Trump’s somewhat ambiguous backing of chloroquine in which he both agrees and disagrees with Fauci’s concerns while also recommending that people try it, contrary to the advice of public health experts. In the early days of the crisis, Trump claimed, contrary to the experts, that COVID-19 was like the flu and suggested that it would probably disappear in April. Trump also asserted that the Democrat’s criticism of his handling of the virus was a hoax. Which was not true. Trump also asserted that extensive testing for the virus was not necessary for the United States to return to normal, which contradicts the view of medical experts.
Examples of Trump contradicting the experts and making untrue claims about the virus and his response to the pandemic could fill an entire report, but these should suffice to show why this must be done: the President is making claims that contradict the views of public health and medical experts and the American people need to choose between the two sources. In my previous essay, I made the case for why Dr. Fauci should be accepted as a credible expert and believed. But I also need to assess Trump using the same standards to see if he is a credible expert on public health issues. Spoiler alert: he is not.
The first standard is that the person must have sufficient expertise in the subject. While Trump did attend college, he has no formal education in public health. He has no experience in the area, beyond what is happening now. He has no accomplishments—only failures. His only reputation in this area is based on his handling of the crisis, which is objectively bad. While he is the president, this has no relevance to expertise in public health. Bizarrely, Trump claimed (on camera) that he has a “natural ability” in science because of his uncle. He even went so far as to brag about knowing so much about COVID-19 that CDC officials had to ask him about this special knowledge. I should not have to say that is not how expertise works.
To be fair, Trump has admitted that he is not a doctor and the President is neither required nor expected to be competent in public health—which is why previous presidents left such matters to actual experts.
Second, the claim must be in the person’s area of expertise. Trump is, has been established, not a public health expert. His supporters did argue that his alleged expertise in business (despite a deep history of failures) qualified him to be president. But does being a businessperson qualify a person as a public health expert? If it does, we should be turning to Jeff Bezos and other billionaires for our medical advice. Also, if this does hold true, then you should just go to a successful local business (such as a plumber) for your health care needs. So, even if Trump is the great businessperson that his supporters claim, this does not make him an expert in public health.
Third, there needs to be an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the field. As noted above, the experts disagree with Trump and agree with each other when it comes to many of his claims. As such, they should be accepted over him—especially since he is not an expert.
Fourth, the expert must not significantly biased. Trump is clearly biased—he has made it evident that his main concern is his re-election. When asked about allowing a cruise ship to disembark its passengers, his biggest worry was that it would impact his numbers. This is but one example of how he prefers untruths that he thinks help him to truths that help the county. As I noted in the previous essay, the fact that a person is biased does not entail that any specific claim they make is false—so to infer that a claim Trump makes is false because he is biased it would be to fall victim to an ad hominem. But his bias reduces his credibility.
Fifth, the area of expertise must be a legitimate area or discipline. Public health is certainly legitimate, but Trump is not in that field. Sixth, the authority must be identified. Well, we do know that Trump is saying what Trump says.
Finally, the expert needs to be honest and trustworthy. It has been established beyond all doubt that Trump is a chronic liar. His specific lies about the pandemic are being tracked by the Atlantic—a list that keeps growing. As I noted in the previous essay, the fact that a person is dishonest does not entail that any specific claim they make is false—so to infer that a claim Trump makes is false because he makes it would be to fall victim to an ad hominem. But his relentless lying destroys his credibility.
By applying these standards to Trump what is obvious is established by reason: if Trump and public health care experts disagree, the rational thing to do is believe the public health experts over Trump.
There are, of course, those that support Trump over the experts and have great (perhaps even absolute) faith in him. Speaking to these devoted supporters, I propose that you put your faith to the test. This will get dark, so consider this a trigger warning.
Imagine that you experience the following: “a headache that changes depending on the time of day and position of the head and gets worse over time, seizures and numbness.” You wisely decide to seek medical attention, for these are signs of a possible brain tumor. When you get to the doctor’s office, the receptionist says “you are in luck! Dr. Sanjay Gupta and President Trump are here and able to see you. Which one do you want to see?” If you believe that Trump should be trusted on public health over the medical experts, then you should choose to have Trump examine you—after all, you believe that he knows better than the medical experts. If you do not trust Trump about this and would trust Dr. Gupta, then you should trust the health experts over Trump when he contradicts them. Now, to get darker,
Suppose that you find out that you do have a brain tumor and the receptionist says “Sorry about that, but you are in luck because Dr. Gupta and President Trump are scrubbed up and ready to cut that tumor out of your head!” If you believe Trump over the medical experts in the case of COVID-19, then you accept that he is the best medical expert—so you should be happy to have him cut a hole in your head. If you are unwilling to let Trump do this, then you should not trust him over the medical experts when it comes to COVID-19.
While Trump is legally President, this does not make him a medical expert. When his claims contradict those of public health care experts, believe the experts. Believing Trump in such cases can put you and other people in danger.