It is a grim irony that Donald Trump's health and possibly his political future are now in the hands of highly trained physicians. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, he has regularly disparaged health experts.
Even in last week's presidential debate, just before his Covid-19 diagnosis, he took an idle potshot at Anthony Fauci, a senior US health official, accusing him of changing his mind on the benefits of wearing a mask. As Dr Fauci later pointed out, he has been urging people to wear face-coverings now for months, even if he did not recommend masks in the early stages of the pandemic for fear it would lead to shortages.
The US president's casual comments are a symptom of a dangerous diminishing of real experts, even as instant experts are on the rise.
Becoming an expert takes years. In the early stages, it requires a dedication to mind-numbing, repetitive work. Roger Kneebone, in his fascinating and inspiring new book, , calls this "doing time", and cites countless examples, from a tailor obliged to sew pocket flap after pocket flap, to a stone-carver ordered to spend six months creating a perfectly flat horizontal surface on a block of granite and the next six months doing the same to a vertical surface.
Prof Kneebone knows about the sheer grind of becoming an expert through close study of their work, but also through sometimes bitter experience. He has been a surgeon, then a general practitioner, and now a professor. In his spare time, he has worked to become an amateur pilot, a builder and player of harpsichords, and an (inexpert) juggler.
He points out that, having progressed slowly from Apprentice, via Journeyman, to Master, experts can use their embedded skills and wisdom to adapt seamlessly to unexpected events, be it a mid-air cockpit emergency, a patient's sudden bleed in the operating theatre, or a pandemic.
UK minister Michael Gove's notorious declaration, ahead of the 2016 Brexit vote, that the country had "had enough of experts . . . saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong", haunts this discussion.
Asked about the remark after a lecture at Gresham College last week, Prof Kneebone agreed nobody should worship expertise unquestioningly. Experts can easily become complacent and prone to sloppiness (as distinct from "honourable errors" that result from innovating in the quest to advance).
But he was politely but firmly critical of the essence of Gove's comment. "If we try and chisel away at what it means to be expert," he said, it has "a corrosive and destructive effect". And crumbling trust in experts comes just at a point when we need "expert improvisers" more than ever.
Coronavirus is already clogging the route to expertise. Some experts work in solitude. But many are involved in close group work. Social distancing has curbed jazz sessions, turned face-to-face patient consultations, where doctors and nurses hone their skills, into unsatisfactory video calls, and thrown staff out of the workplace, forcing them to find a new way to organise teams.
There is some hope for those who want to take the long path. The UK government's recent announcement that adult further education should be funded through a "flexible life-long loan entitlement" seems like a step in the right direction. The initiative creates a model similar to that used to pay for university courses. It echoes Prof Kneebone's important insight that "the essence of being expert — that wisdom allows you to get to the heart of a problem and fix it with skill, judgment and care — cuts across [the] unhelpful hierarchies" where pianists or pilots rank above plumbers or plasterers.
Less helpfully, under-resourced courses would put an even greater premium on sketchily assessed qualifications, rather than the all-important process of learning the craft.
The real threat to becoming an expert, though, is an increasing yearning for quick fixes, pat answers, and instant gratification. "There's a growing sense that anyone can learn to do anything — and quickly," laments Prof Kneebone in his book. People applaud Tik Tok experts over those who have "done time", or they assume that real skills displayed on social media can be picked up without effort or the acquisition of basic techniques.
Trump is a case in point. He has sometimes been swift to claim "natural ability" in matters that his expert advisers took years to understand. But that is no surprise. After all, in the TV show that vaulted him towards the presidency, the apprenticeships he bestowed were a high-profile reward for a few weeks of showy salesmanship, not the first step in a hard but fulfilling journey towards mastery.
Written by: Andrew Hill
© Financial Times