Your current web browser is outdated. For best viewing experience, please consider upgrading to the latest version.

Contact

Send a question or comment using the form below. This message may be routed through support staff.

Email Article

RSVP

Forum

Practical Wisdom in a Time of COVID and Beyond

Jennifer A. Frey Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of South Carolina
Tony Mills Resident Senior Fellow and Director of Science Policy, R Street Institute; Senior Fellow, Pepperdine School of Public Policy
Jocelyn Pickford Senior Affiliate, HCM Strategists
Andy Smarick Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute
Fri, Oct 16, 2020 EVENTCAST

Thank you for your RSVP.

ERROR
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
ERROR
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
search DONATE
Close Nav

Practical Wisdom in a Time of COVID and Beyond

back to top
SEE ALL EVENTS
Forum

Practical Wisdom in a Time of COVID and Beyond

Jennifer A. Frey Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of South Carolina
Tony Mills Resident Senior Fellow and Director of Science Policy, R Street Institute; Senior Fellow, Pepperdine School of Public Policy
Jocelyn Pickford Senior Affiliate, HCM Strategists
Andy Smarick Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute EVENTCAST 10:00am—11:00am
Friday October 16
Friday October 16 2020
PAST EVENT Friday October 16 2020
 

2020 severely tested the governing abilities of our leaders. America faced a once-in-a-century pandemic, a collapsed economy, civil unrest, shuttered schools, toxic politics, and more. Despite months of opportunities to solve these problems, the U.S. has now surpassed 200,000 Covid deaths, millions remain unemployed, several cities continue to face turmoil, thousands of schools remain closed, and the political climate remains radioactive. Why have we fared so poorly?

Good governance requires the capacity to appreciate competing claims, understand trade-offs, and demonstrate prudence. Sound public decision-making requires not only technical ability or scientific knowledge, but “practical wisdom,” which develops only with repeated engagement in a particular task, along with its various causes, contours, and implications. It can produce shrewd, robust decisions even in the most challenging circumstances. Perhaps one explanation for our governing failures in 2020 is the paucity of practical wisdom in statecraft—and perhaps the key to a better 2021 is more of it.

On October 16, join the Manhattan Institute for a discussion on practical wisdom and its role in governing today, with philosophy professor Jennifer Frey, science policy director Tony Mills, and education specialist Jocelyn Pickford.

Event Transcript

Andy Smarick:

(silence) Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for being here with us. We are here at this event that we're calling Practical Wisdom in a Time of COVID and Beyond. My name is Andy Smarick and I'm a senior fellow here at the Manhattan Institute. I'm going to moderate the discussion today. And in just a moment, I'm going to hand it off to our three outstanding panelists who are going to really take it from there. But first, I want to just do a little bit of throat clearing on just a brief explanation of this subject and why I think it's so important right now.

Andy Smarick:

Obviously, America is facing major challenges right now. We're grappling with a once in a century pandemic, we have millions of people out of work, thousands of schools are still shuttered, we have civil unrest in a numbers of cities. And obviously, all of these issues are intertwined, but it's also the case that we had big problems prior to COVID as well: huge budget deficits, the opioid addiction crisis, abnormally low labor participation rates, deaths of despair. I could go on. So we've had challenges, they're just more pronounced now, perhaps.

Andy Smarick:

So the question for us is, how do we go about solving these problems? And one model is, as the saying goes, to just follow the signs, essentially just treat these problems as technical matters that can be resolved by impartial, highly educated experts. The problem, of course, is that experts are humans just like the rest of us, they make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes. They can also be biased, just like we can. And also, in a big diverse continental republic like ours, there are legitimate differences of opinion about among the people, about governing principles and governing philosophies and priorities. And we have to admit that America, we have an independent, free thinking, sometimes stubborn population that doesn't want to delegate its decision making to folks that they don't know and who may not share their same values.

Andy Smarick:

So we could go into the total opposite direction and empower people without subject matter expertise and without experience in governing, and then trust that they are going to use their everyday common sense to solve our problems. And this certainly appeals to our notions of equality and democracy. The problem again, though, is what happens if these people just don't know very much about the way government functions internally? What happens if they don't know very much about what laws, regulations, court cases, or public programs are applicable in certain situations? Or what happens if they just aren't skilled at balancing and accommodating different views among America's diverse citizenry? So we can find ourselves in a bind. Now, there's this great story that offers us an alternative to these two models, the brilliant technical expert model and the governing novice model.

Andy Smarick:

A guy named Sam Rayburn was the old grizzled speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives when John Kennedy was elected president back in 1960. And Kennedy started hiring people for his administration who'd later be known as the whiz kids or the best and the brightest. And they were young often, but they were super smart and super well-educated, idealistic, energetic. And they came from industry and academia. The vice-president at the time, LBJ, tried to convince old grizzled, Sam Rayburn, how amazing these whiz kids were. And Rayburn replied "Well, Lyndon, you may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say they are, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once." The point he was trying to make, and that we're getting at here is maybe you learn invaluable lessons from hands-on experience, things you can't learn from a textbook, things you can't learn just by going on gut.

Andy Smarick:

So in terms of governing, what this would mean is that there's something important about a track record of public leadership. So thankfully we have this ancient concept going back hundreds, thousands of years called practical wisdom. It relates to how doing shapes the doer, teaching the doer what questions to ask, how to respond, what to expect and much more. It also suggests in interesting ways that the person who is seasoned in doing a thing will differ from the types of people who are studying the thing or talking about the thing. Now, obviously this could apply to plumbing, or engineering, or farming, or lots of other fields, but it has applications for governing. I think it has big applications for governing during times of crisis when we really need great government. So all of this leads to the big question that we're grappling with here today, which is, is there such thing that we should consider as practical wisdom in statecraft?

Andy Smarick:

Okay. So onto our three amazing panelists. The way we're going to proceed, I'm going to introduce them and each will get about five minutes to share their open thoughts. We'll get the conversation going. Then I'd like to get audience questions in early. So if you want to use the chat function to submit a question, please do. I will get that into the bloodstream. I'll give all the panelists a couple of minutes to close at the end and then we'll be out of here by 11:00 AM. Okay. So let me introduce these great panelists.

Andy Smarick:

First up is Jennifer Frey. She is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at Catholic University. She's written widely on virtue, ethics, happiness, moral psychology. She recently edited a book titled self-transcendence and virtue, and she's currently editing a volume for Oxford University Press entitled Practical Wisdom. I should also say that she is the host of this great podcast called Sacred and Profane Love to which I subscribe and you should too. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband and their six kids. Next up will be Tony Mills. He is a senior fellow and director of science policy at the R Street Institute. He's a senior fellow also at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy and an associate at the Society of Catholic Scientists. He researches and writes on everything from science, and technology, and philosophy, and religion, and also the way that expertise plays in a democracy.

Andy Smarick:

And then last, but certainly not least is Jocelyn Pickford. She's an education policy and communication specialist for HCM Strategies. She has experience in just about every single corner of American public education. She's a product of public schools and a former classroom teacher. She was a senior leader at the US department of education and helped lead initiatives for state departments of ed and local school districts, and working with nonprofits in education like the George W. Bush Institute, the Gates Foundation, the College Board, and more. She lives outside of Philadelphia. She is currently a proud public school parent and a member of her local school board, which is dealing with all of these COVID related issues. So let's get started. Professor Frey, if you don't mind, could you tell us what in the world is practical wisdom and what does it tell us about expertise and experience?

Jennifer Freyk:

Yeah. I would love to talk about practical wisdom. Thanks Andy for inviting me. Yeah, so unfortunately practical wisdom is very marginalized in our public discourse, but it's also marginalized within the Academy and within philosophy. However, if you go back to the very beginning of philosophy, so the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, you will find that practical wisdom is at the heart of their thoughts, especially their ethical and their political philosophy. And for them ethics and politics are really part of the same practical science. And for Plato and Aristotle, ethics is about what it means to live well or to flourish as human beings. And both Plato and Aristotle recognized that human beings aren't first and foremost, isolated, autonomous individuals who have to decide whether or not they want to deal with other people, but they're essentially social, rational, political animals.

Jennifer Freyk:

If we think about human flourishing, then we're thinking about society. We're thinking about the [inaudible 00:08:23] for the city state, and what are the conditions in which we can flourish together. And when they think about ethics and politics, they're thinking about the highest good, they're thinking about what is it that constitutes in flourishing, objectively speaking. And in the final analysis they think, "Well, look, that's the goal. That's what we want." Whatever it is. And they also both insist that in order to attain human flourishing, whatever that turns out to be, you're to have hard virtues. The Greek word for virtue is arete, which literally means excellence. They mean excellence is of the soul. So these are habits, are stable dispositions of thought action, and feeling that contribute or constitute a flourishing society. We just need to develop these habits or stable dispositions.

Jennifer Freyk:

And again, they are a thought action and feelings, so it's really a cultivation of the whole person. And you need this in order to live well. And really the master virtue for both Plato and Aristotle is practical wisdom and the Greek it's [foreign language 00:09:34] and the Latin traditions it's [foreign language 00:09:37]. It's just the idea that living well takes a certain specific practical intelligence. So there's theoretical intelligence. Maybe you have a deep understanding of the cosmos and, of course, they think that's valuable and important, but they also recognize you could have that and nobody would want you to be in charge in society.

Jennifer Freyk:

In fact, famously, you could be a wonderful theoretical physicist or a mathematician and like barely be able to tie your shoes. So there's a kind of theoretical wisdom. And practical wisdom is practical. That is to say it's aimed at realizing the good, so not just knowing the good, but realizing the good in your actions so that you can bring about whatever it is a flourishing society amounts to. And again, it's a specific intelligence. It's practical. But within the space of practical intelligence, practical wisdom is still a unique kind. So there's a kind of intelligence that is what they call technical or [foreign language 00:10:50], I think what we would call, expertise on the one hand. Then there's mere cleverness on the other, and practical wisdom is something else. So let's start with [foreign language 00:11:02] or expertise. This is a specific kind of practical intelligence. But it's very narrow. So it's relative to a specific goal or bringing about a specific product.

Jennifer Freyk:

So practical kinds of intelligence might be like, I don't know, being an excellent basketball player, or being a great grammarian, or being a good writer. And to have this practical intelligence, it takes habits and experience. So it's not a kind of [inaudible 00:11:32] knowledge. Young people typically aren't experts. It takes a lot of experience. And it often involves a master apprentice relationships, so there has to be some exemplar that you can look to and imitate in order to have this specific kind of intelligence. And when Aristotle in particular talks about practical wisdom, he notes, and this is very important, that practical wisdom has all the features of expertise, but it cannot be reduced to expertise. Why not?

Jennifer Freyk:

And the reason is ... well, the really there are two reasons. One is that expertise is always relative to a very narrow domain. And practical wisdom is about human flourishing in general. So that's an important difference, but an even more deeper difference for Aristotle is that you can actually use your expertise to bring about a bad end. So you can expertly as a grammarian, write an ungrammatical sentence. And in fact, as a grammarian in teaching grammar, you will do that and you will do it well. It will be an instance of an exercise of your expertise. You cannot do that with practical wisdom. You cannot use your practical wisdom to bring about something that's not human flourishing. What [inaudible 00:12:53] the difference, for Aristotle it's because the habits that you need in order to have good practical judgment, that is the judgment of practical wisdom, you have to have moral virtue.

Jennifer Freyk:

So he thinks that in order to be wise about what constitutes human flourishing for this city, you actually have to have what he calls correct desire, as you have to have moral virtue. So leadership, real political leadership involves virtue. So actually the moral character of a leader is incredibly important. And it should be obvious that this is lost on us now. We adapt a more Machiavellian model or what Aristotle calls mere cleverness. So the merely clever man has a specific practical intelligence. Namely, if you give him an end, if you say, "Make this happen." He can find the means. And that's a definite form of intelligence, and Aristotle doesn't deny that, but it will not bring about human flourishing. It'll bring about whatever end it is that you want. So I think we've lost this concept of practical wisdom, but I think especially now, and I'm sure we'll talk about this in our broader discussion, it seems to me that it's more important than ever that we'd be able to separate out mere cleverness from expertise and actual political prudence.

Andy Smarick:

That's great. One thing I'm going to want to come back to later on is a question I always get from people is, well, experience in a certain domain doesn't necessarily lead people to be more moral. You can actually find lots of highly experienced immoral people. So what do we make of that? So let's just put that in the parking lot for the time being. Tony, you've been writing a ton about judgment and the role of expertise in democracies. So what do you make of all this stuff?

Tony Mills:

Yeah. Well, first of all, let me just say, thanks, Andy and also, thanks to the Manhattan Institute for convening this and for inviting me. What I would do ... so I want to shift the focus a little bit and think about the notion of scientific expertise and specifically what we take it to be. By we, thinking of as non-scientific experts, whether we're policy makers or whatever and what we expect of or ask of scientific expertise. I think the way you put it, Andy, is the way I would begin, which is thinking about judgment. So when we're making a practical decision in a political situation that requires depends in some way, say, on some scientific knowledge, what we're doing or what we should be doing is relying on expert judgment.

Tony Mills:

So I think the fact that the judgment in question is expert judgment is quite significant. It sounds tautological to emphasize that, but I think there's a lot packed into that. So I think generally, often, we don't think about scientific knowledge this way. We think about it more like a product. We think about science as a black box or maybe a vending machine. We put in our money, we pick what we want, and we press the button and then out pops some scientific knowledge, which we can then use or not as we see fit. I think that this kind of [inaudible 00:16:19], it sounds deliberately pending a cartoonish picture, but I think that this way of thinking is actually quite pervasive in our public discourse. I think the reason is that it's in part psychologically comforting, maybe politically convenient, because it allows us to think that once we have the scientific knowledge or evidence, then we can really restrict the role of judgment and deliberation so that any effort to interpose judgment or deliberation can be dismissed as not just wrong, but non-scientific.

Tony Mills:

But what I would suggest is that this is not just a bad view of political decision-making, it's a bad view of scientific expertise. I would propose thinking about scientific expertise more along the lines of the craft, a particular kind of craft. If we're talking about theoretical sciences, we're not interested in producing something. We're interested in knowing something, but yet the analogy with craft, I think, is quite helpful because scientific experts are people that have cultivated the particular skills, habits, instincts in a given domain. This gets to some of the issues that Professor Frey was talking about, requires intellectual virtues and indeed some kinds of moral virtues as well.

Tony Mills:

Scientists, if you're flagrantly dishonest, you won't be able to judge empirical data fairly or to report your findings fairly. But there are intellectual virtue specific to your craft. So when we ask scientific experts for their judgment when making a political decision that needs to be informed by their knowledge, we're asking them to apply their judgment, to bring their skills and knowledge to bear, typically on a new situation, a situation where there's considerable uncertainty. So this, I think, makes it pretty clear that the scientific expertise can be wrong. Human judgment is not infallible. This is a stronger claim than the normal empirical fallibility we might normally or should associate scientific knowledge. If we're asking for an expert to make a judgment about something, especially in a situation with conserve on certainty, there's, of course, a reasonable chance that judgment is not right.

Tony Mills:

It's also possible that there's disagreement among experts. So I think that emphasizing well judgment is significant because it allows us to see that relying on scientific knowledge isn't about consuming a product, ready-made it arrives into the political scene, but it's about deliberation, deliberating with experts. And this cuts both ways. If we recognize that expert judgment is fallible, that experts can disagree, then when there is uncertainty or disagreement, that's not reason to radically distrust all experts. So if an expert changes the judgment that he or she is making in light of new evidence or in light of a new circumstance, that it could show a bias or just simple bad judgment, but it could also be very good judgment on the part of an expert. So we have to be willing to allow for a certain amount of deference.

Tony Mills:

Now, deference of course is not absolute. So the analogy that I sometimes use is that if you have to go to a car mechanic, it could be because your car breaks down or something, it could be that you don't have the expertise to fix your own car, but most of us probably don't. So you go to the car mechanic because you rely on that person's skill. They have something that you don't have. So in some sense, you have to be deferential to that form of expertise, but of course, not absolutely deferential. First of all, you have to be discriminating. You choose, if you can, what car mechanic to go to, you can evaluate whether you think they're trustworthy, if they exercise prudence, but you also have access to information that that expert doesn't have. Perhaps you're planning to sell your car, perhaps you're planning to go on a long road trip, those kinds of factors might determine what decision you're going to make.

Tony Mills:

In a political context where you're called upon, let's say, you're a policy maker, to make a decision about a wide ranging multifaceted problem like a pandemic, lots of information obviously is going to be relevant. And lots of people, I think this is important, will be implicated by the judgment of the expert, the erroneous judgment of an expert. This means that you're going to have to consult with a much wider range of people. You may not have all the information nor the [inaudible 00:20:51] of an expert. In other words, what I would conclude this by saying is relying on scientific expertise requires a deliberation. And part of deliberating well is knowing whom to deliberate with, whom to consult and how to weigh their expert advice or not expert advice to the case may be. So I think emphasizing this sort of judgment is important because it shapes how we think about the interface between science and politics.

Andy Smarick:

Okay. So that's a great ... and we're going to come back to just about all of that, but that's a perfect segue to Jocelyn to make this much more real. There are many reasons why I wanted to have Jocelyn as part of this panel, but one of them is this question, which is you were sitting in a position right now on a governing board of a school system. And you were being hit by presumably lots of experts telling you things, for example, if you bring kids back to school, blood will be on your hands because teachers and kids will die, but also other experts telling you that it's uncomfortable not to bring them back. You have some scientific experts saying that everyone should socially distance until everything is solved. Other scientific experts said, "Well, social distance, other than if you're doing a protest with which we agree." And then your parents saying one thing, and then you have local community members saying another.

Andy Smarick:

So Tony's point about deliberation and using your judgment in the context of all of this expert opinion actually becomes the stuff of real life decision-making. So how have you grappled with these kinds of issues over the past, I don't know, six months?

Jocelyn Pickford:

Yeah. Thank you. And also, thank you for having me and it's a great conversation to be part of, giving me a lot to think about. I want to just pick up on three things that have been in the conversation so far, and then look forward to the discussion. First, this notion of learning by doing something and doing it repeatedly and how that applies to this decision-making of place that I'm in right now. So I was actually a poetry major in college, and one of the most impactful things my poetry professor said to me was, "You really have to know the world to make your poetry meaningful." I would say the same thing goes with the consulting work that I do now, and certainly with governing. You can't advise or govern the smart plan, something that you haven't lived. So certainly I'm [inaudible 00:23:12] experience [inaudible 00:23:13] classroom teacher and working deeply in education policy and moving back and forth between the two to understand that well, both of those realms of experiences are for very practical, being in the classroom right now, being a parent of two public elementary school children gives me one expertise.

Jocelyn Pickford:

And being a policy advisor and having to understand data and those types of elements is also critical, but neither of those who proceeds the other. And I think importantly that they inform each other and knowing which hat to wear in which moment of this decision-making on a school board has been a shifting and challenging proposition. It's one thing to interview teachers and parents and explore their feelings and perceptions on a high level about what's happening and it's another to be a parent watching a child struggle with remote learning and to be a school board member hearing from people who have very different opinions on all sides of what we should be doing. So this notion of doing something repeatedly gives us as much in a moment like this expertise and wisdom as we can try to draw from, and being able to flip flop back and forth has been helpful to me.

Jocelyn Pickford:

The second thing I wanted to pick up on, Andy, you actually wrote about in your recent piece in City Journal, which is again, just how do we balance our roles between expertise and those who are governing the everyday American, which is definitely what I consider myself in a school board position. So education like all areas, but perhaps a little bit uniquely, we deal with both policy and politics, and we see it every day and we see it at every level. So again, it's one thing I know as an education expert of sorts. I understand education and data. I know how to read an accountability dashboard. But it's another thing to know lived experience of my children and my neighbor's children and what that data actually translates into the classroom. And what that means for all sorts of positions for school board, like curriculum choices and budgeting.

Jocelyn Pickford:

So right now in this moment of COVID I'm shifting daily between my role as a consultant and an expert who deals in data and expertise and a role as a governing member of a board who has to make decisions. My district right now is currently remote only. We are facing a decision of when and whether to return to a hybrid model. There are people with very strong feelings on both sides of that equation as Andy pointed out, it gets very heated. I will say when it comes to this current pandemic, none of the expertise I have as an education policy specialist of sorts could have prepared me for some of the nuances of what is being faced at the local district level.

Jocelyn Pickford:

So we want to do hybrid learning. So that means half of the students are in a classroom learning with their teacher and the other half are at home. And wouldn't it be great if we could live stream their lessons so that both could have access to the teacher at the same time? Well, the practical reality of live streaming means you need microphones for the teachers and the students who have masks on, it's very hard to hear someone who's muffled in that environment. Most public school districts do not have microphones and broadcast studio type environments in their classrooms. We might have to double the teacher workforce in order to accommodate different cohorts. That's an extremely significant budget impact, can't raise taxes right now in the middle of a recession. So these are very practical nuances that I wouldn't have considered if I was just wearing an expert consultant hat.

Jocelyn Pickford:

So here we are trying to use data, but data is subjective and it's ever changing. There are a lot of pieces that have come out that show that schools are not super spreaders. However, looking around my local area, outside Philadelphia, we have districts that have opened and have had to close for a period of time, we have some that have stayed open, and everything in between. So people can bring whatever story or piece of data that they find most impactful to the conversation and be valid in some ways. So this brings me to the third point, and I really want to borrow from both Tony and Jennifer, trust is variable and human flourishing is the goal. I think we can agree no one is flourishing right now. I think that's part of the challenge at this local school district level.

Jocelyn Pickford:

We're angry, we're tired, we're frustrated. We want to flourish. That is the human instinct. We can't do that in this limited environment where everything is changing. I joke that it's like we're juggling fireballs and quicksand with education decision making, where something new is coming at us every day and it's on fire. We did a district survey of how parents feel about remote learning and we found much higher satisfaction with individual teachers than with distance learning overall. This isn't surprising. Americans overall think our public schools are so-so, but if you ask how someone feels about your local public school, they feel pretty good about it. So trust is observed most clearly, I think, at the most local level in our homes, in individual student teacher relationships.

Jocelyn Pickford:

So when we talk about the fallibilities of scientific experts and how that compares to trust, I think this is being played out in our homes and classrooms right now and it really impacts whether a family feels comfortable sending their child in. Do they trust the teacher? Do they trust the school? Do they trust the decision makers to be doing the right things for health and safety and for education? So I would just close out this part by saying, Andy, again in your piece, you referred to the Stockdale paradox. I love that. How do you focus on the issue at hand? How do you be honest about your challenges, but also project confidence in a sense that we are going to get through this? And we are making the best decisions that we can. I think school boards and superintendents and local district leaders are in this very challenging position of wanting to project that confidence while dealing with ever-changing conditions and a real, I think, psychotomy between this practical experience, practical wisdom, and the expertise that seems to be changing daily.

Andy Smarick:

Oh, that's great. So a couple of notes before I open up to all of you. One is an essay that I wrote, that Professor Frey wrote, and that Dr. Mills wrote, should be available on the site where people are watching this right now. So if you're interested in any of these issues that you could read more. I want to give each of you the opportunity to respond to anything anyone else said, but one thing that really popped out to me, and you can respond to this or ignore it at your leisure, is the idea that at least three categories of potential skills dispositions were alluded to during the discussion so far. That is the kinds of stuff we would want leaders during these kinds of situations to have.

Andy Smarick:

One that Dr. Frey brought up is moral virtue, which is different than performance virtue, and civic virtue, and intellectual virtue. But there's something about honesty and integrity that we would probably want. Tony brought up this idea of judgment. That you probably need a certain set of skills for bringing together a bunch of different people's views and making a decision based on all of those things that is the best given your conditions, the things that you're responsible for. And then Jocelyn brought up this amazing idea that I think is painful for a lot of us to deal with, which is in any particular domain, there are folks who just know a whole lot more about the ins and outs of what does it mean to get a bus ready for kids? What does it mean to have microphones ready for teachers? Or if you're a doctor, what does it mean to have the right kinds of protective equipment? The kinds of questions you wouldn't even know to ask if you don't know very much about that field.

Andy Smarick:

So thinking about like, how do we generate leaders who are capable of those kinds of things is definitely on my mind. But Jen, do you want to go first? Do you have any general thoughts you want to respond to?

Jennifer Freyk:

Yeah, so thank you. There was so much that everyone's said that was so interesting, but I guess from my point of view, what really stood out is the fact that it is all that means. Practical wisdom is an ability to deliberate well. And when we think about good practical deliberation, we're always checking about very specific concrete circumstances. So one thing that I didn't mention that [inaudible 00:31:04] mentioned is just that practical wisdom is not a set of highly general rules that apply across all these cases. It's highly contextualized. And actually Aristotle talks about it as having cracked vision. Vision is always of particulars. It's about seeing what's practically salient, being able to pick out in your specific situation what needs to be done and how to respond. I think that really tends to get lost because we tend to have this highly centralized vision of how it has to work.

Jennifer Freyk:

The truth is what's going to work for a school in rural America and what's going to work for a school in an urban environment are just different. So if we try to have this policy that's going to apply in every cases, we're going to fail people. I think a lot of what has gone so terribly wrong in these COVID times is just that we haven't been fine grained enough. We've completely ignored and marginalized certain communities. Maybe because we decided they didn't matter or also because we're ... I just think we're sort of stuck in this model of thinking that we have to come up with something highly general and the truth is that's not how it works. So, yeah, I just wanted to highlight that

Andy Smarick:

Well, such a great point because we have to recognize how many essays have we read from saying, "We must open all schools." Or, "We must keep all schools closed." That probably gets a lot of ink and a lot of clicks, and that's not nearly as dramatic as saying, "Let's be more nuanced about the 13,500 school districts and make particular decisions based on them." But it does raise a question of if you're the president of the United States and you can't make a decision for all 13,000 school districts, what does leadership look like at the highest level so you can create the conditions such that people can use local judgment in particular situations to make the best kinds of decisions possible? Tony, what do you think?

Tony Mills:

Yeah. So I would say, again, very much agree with the framework that Professor Frey has outlined here. I would make a similar argument about how we think about scientific expertise. That we have this view that there is this neutral body of scientific evidence out there and we just have to grab onto what we need and apply to the circumstance. But, in fact, scientific acknowledge is itself quite contextual. Even our most robust kinds of scientific knowledge claims are claims about what happens in their very specific circumstances. This is the way that scientific knowledge is able to be precise. So maybe an example of that is somewhat [inaudible 00:33:57], thinking about what kind of [inaudible 00:34:00]. You have to model a disease a certain way.

Tony Mills:

You have to make a judgment about what model to use. It's not an arbitrary judgment. It's not just your gut to be informed by well established theory and empirical evidence, statistical methods and heuristics and so on, but it's a judgment on the less. And it will depend on what you know, or what you think you know, or what you don't know about the given population that you're modeling, the behavior of the community in question. So that's a very subtle judgment that the experts are called upon to make, but it can have very significant consequences if it's an erroneous judgment or if the conditions under which the claims it allows are forgotten. So if we think about science as just this general thing, this centralized idea that Professor Frey was mentioning.

Tony Mills:

So typically, I think, in scientific context, this doesn't really come up. It doesn't really matter what cosmologists say, "Is the big bang true, or is the steady state model true?" That used to be a live debate. It might impact what you think you know about the cosmos, but it doesn't generally impact public policy or local decisions. It might impact funding questions about basic science, maybe. There's a disagreement in the community that gets resolved in a certain way, the extra community. It doesn't really have much impact. But it's when we are asking and need to ask scientific experts for their advice, their expert recommendation, with the fact of their use of judgment and the fact of disagreement become fraught. Those are the circumstances that we tend to find ourselves in when we're making practical decision making. So I think that's not a very comforting idea because it doesn't allow us to outsource our own decision-making to scientific expertise because we're recognizing that that expertise is going to be fallible and to some extent, context dependent.

Andy Smarick:

That's great. Jocelyn, thoughts?

Jocelyn Pickford:

So in education there's a thing that everyone's an expert because everyone is educated. So I think we've faced this. So we have parents who are the ultimate experts on their own children. We have teachers who are the experts on their classrooms and their instructional models. We have principals. We have all these layers in the system going all the way up to the state education agency and the federal agency, all of whom are now trying to grapple with this very, very local context that my colleagues have mentioned here. So I'll give you another example not academic, but actually sports. So here in Pennsylvania, the governor made a comment that he believed and strongly recommended, "All school sports should be paused at least until January." And immediately the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association came out and said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. We don't agree with that." They took a vote which passed overwhelming at 20-something to five that said, "No, we're fine with it. We're going to leave it up to the local districts to decide."

Jocelyn Pickford:

So as a local school board member, now it's put upon the school board and the superintendent to say what's right for our district. The governor says no, the association says yes. You have to figure out what makes the most sense for your population. And that brings in a whole nother set of stakeholders and people with really strong feelings and health and safety concerns. So again, I don't have an answer to this balance right now, other than to point out the nuance of expertise and the different levels and people who are in governing positions and in expert positions bringing that humility and wanting to allow local decision making. But then the local decision makers really feeling like we need more expertise. We need more guidance that is stronger and that feels solid, and doesn't feel like it's going to change in a week.

Andy Smarick:

All right, let me nudge all of our viewers. If you have questions, please keep sending them in. I'm going to increasingly get them into the conversation. You can just use the chat function to do that. Any question, comment we'll get into the bloodstream. Of course, what I want to ask before we do that though, it's going to be my last question, but it seems apropos at this moment, which is what's on my mind right now, is how do we develop the next generation of leaders who can learn from the lessons you guys are talking about? And if I reflect on the public policy graduate program I went through, we never talked about local practitioner wisdom. We never talked about the differences between civil society and experience and expertise.

Andy Smarick:

As a matter of fact, we had two or three classes in economics, in statistics. We learned about regulations and state budgets. We were taught how to be technocrats. We weren't taught, now I'm thinking, about how to be public leaders to make these kinds of decisions. So if any of you ... do you have thoughts about like, if you were in charge of a public policy program, helping develop the next generation of public sector leaders, especially for times of crisis, are there things that you would want them to read, activities to do, books or articles that they should engage with that would really just set them up to do this practical wisdom thing better than currently we're doing it?

Jennifer Freyk:

Can I respond?

Andy Smarick:

Yeah, please.

Jennifer Freyk:

Okay. I think it depends on what sort of leader that we're talking about. Right? I think anyone who has political power or authority, no matter of what level, whether we're talking about a local superintendent or we're talking about a mayor, or we're talking about a governor, we're talking about someone who's more than an expert and who hopefully is more than just a technocrat. And this is the thing that I want to insist upon, look, just throwing more experts into the mix furthers the problem. It's not going to solve it because there is a difference between expertise and political prudence. I really think that if we're talking about ... and this is like a third in higher ed right now, and I'm not opposed to it, except I feel like they're not making of it what they should, but there's a third in higher ed that's like leadership.

Jennifer Freyk:

So at my university, you can get a leadership degree in there, like all these qualifications. It's fine. Okay. We want to we want to be graduating leaders. I think that's good, but what is our model of leadership? And when we're talking about people who have political authority over a community, whether the community is big or small, we need someone who understands that their job is to bring about the flourishing of that community. And that this is not a question of mere expertise. There's no merely technocratic solution here because you have to have someone who understands something about what real human goods are and also how to deal with cases where we have competing goods. There is a hierarchy of goods. Health is a human good that is not the highest good. It is not even close.

Jennifer Freyk:

I think part of what gets lost in the conversation in COVID is you have people who are health experts, and that is their expertise, and that is important, and we should listen to them. But they are not experts about how to weigh health against the goods of family life, against the goods of religious worship, against the goods of education. There are other competing goods and they are in no position to tell us which is important. And the biggest extreme case of this was free speech, free assembly versus COVID. And what we saw was this dramatic shift, that sometimes free speech matters, and sometimes it didn't. There, we have also the danger of a politicization of expertise, which we really have to guard against.

Andy Smarick:

Tony, Jocelyn, thoughts about what future leaders need to be thinking about? How we foster their development?

Tony Mills:

Yeah. I would emphasize that given the outsize influence that science has on our temporary culture, whether it's political, decision-making, just popular culture, pervasive. And there is this sort of reverence that we have or scientific enterprise. There's also a, I would say, increasingly common populous backlash because of scientific knowledge. So I think it's very important this is no way to take away from the importance of practical wisdom. But I think part of thinking about how to integrate ... any leader in a political context is going to have to make decisions that are going to be in some way informed by scientific expertise. So I think it's important I'm thinking about forming leaders that have some idea of how scientific expertise works, what it looks like. I think one of the things that's striking, a distinction that might be helpful here, is between practicing scientist and a bureaucrat say, somebody that's employed, maybe has a scientific background, but is making decisions that are political in nature. Maybe they work in a federal agency. That person has a different expertise, maybe overlaps with the expertise of a practicing research scientist, but they're different.

Tony Mills:

One of the things that is noticeable to me when you talk to practicing scientists is that they tend not to be overly certain. They'll give you all of the nuances. They'll tell you, "Well, there's actually only holds under these conditions, and we're still not sure about that." And up-close science is very messy. And part of the wonder of that enterprise is that it actually can generate reliable knowledge through a process that's actually quite messy, and fragile, and delicate. And then you tend to find the people with sort of certainty about scientific knowledge grows as you get farther from that core area of research experts who really actually know what they're talking about.

Tony Mills:

I don't say that as ... it's not necessarily bad. I think that's just kind of the fact of the matter. Somebody that's in charge of a massive research program is going to have a different relationship, even though he or she is a scientist to the core research being done in their project than the actual people that are on the lab bench doing the work. So that's just a fact about scientific knowledge that we need to keep in mind. So I think what I'm saying is that we have to recalibrate our expectations as non-scientific experts about what scientific knowledge is and can do. I think that's important for future leaders, for forming them, because if they're going to be in the political sphere, they're almost certainly going to be making decisions that are going to be influenced by scientific knowledge in some way.

Andy Smarick:

Great. Jocelyn, any thoughts?

Jocelyn Pickford:

I would just quickly add practical experience. So exposure to both in any public policy program. Deep understanding and how to navigate data, what's important to consider from scientific experts, and then practical externship, internship, co-op, apprenticeship type models where public policy learners can really get in the arena. And if they can't do it live due to the policy making process, interviews and other qualitative approaches. But I think we're really doing a disservice to our future leaders if we are not creating programs where they have deep exposure to real life decision making in this kind of way.

Andy Smarick:

Yeah. Just a quick story for me. I got out of my graduate program thinking I knew everything about regressions and how to make scientific decisions. And then the first state legislator and then first Congressman I worked for on day one, the people who were integrating me into the office, had the same types of questions for me. Do you know why we're here? What is our number one job? And for them, the number one answer that I should have given was we are here for the constituents. We answer their mail first, we answered their calls, we listen to them, we take them seriously. And those couple sentences were never articulated when you're thinking about public policy as just like a craft of expertise, how much can you know about a subject matter domain? I don't think we do a very good job of talking about that as we're developing people.

Andy Smarick:

So along those lines, a couple of questions we're getting in right now from the audience relate to like in what kinds of instances should scientific knowledge, expertise, be dispositive? Do we know when it should be dispositive? And then what kind of cases is it not? So we should add other things. So an example is smoking causes cancer, is that the kind of thing that is dispositive that ends discussion, we just go with the experts on that? Or are there moral ethical community democratic considerations to add to that as well, but then also how does that apply to things where there's less scientific certainty? What should the rate speed limit be or what should the tax rates for people who make $100,000 be? So is there a sliding scale or a way to think about when the science is pretty clear or when it's not?

Tony Mills:

I mean, I have thoughts on ... I don't want to dominate the conversation. So, well, obviously, I would say maybe two things about that. One is I think something that should be a part of our thinking when we're asking these questions is what is at stake if the expert judgment is wrong? This is something that philosophers of science sometimes call it inductive risk. So we all know that there's error in scientific knowledge. What are the stakes of that error? So if I am wrong about the steady state model of the universe, then that might matter in terms of my getting at the truth, it might matter in terms of getting my funding, but it's not going to impact Andy Smarick.

Andy Smarick:

That's right.

Tony Mills:

If I'm making a determination about cancer risk or a lot of the issues that we're actually talking about, public health interventions and so on, the stakes are a lot higher. I think in those circumstances, experts themselves are making a different kind of judgment because they have to weigh extra epistemic, non strictly scientific considerations as part of what they're doing. To give you an example, let's say you're a doctor and you're trying to interpret the diagnostic test of a particular patient, you have to make a very specific determination about the outcome of that test and what it means. That requires a lot of knowledge. The prior probability that this person has the disease, weighing that against what we know about the test, complicated technical decision. But it also has an impact on that person and also requires that you weigh something like the relative cost of a false positive or a false negative in your tests. These are complicated decisions. Now, imagine making a decision, but the implications are not just for the patients, for the entire country.

Tony Mills:

It gets a lot more complicated, so it becomes more technically complicated, but it also becomes more morally significant. So that's one way that I would think about that. And just on the issue of where the scientific knowledge is dispositive, I think it's just not always so simple. I mean, take the issue of masks. [inaudible 00:49:16] as a very binary propositions. Binary proposition, right? Do they work? Do they not work? Obviously, much depends on the nuance. And what sometimes you'll hear is staunch advocates of using masks will say, "Look, now we know. The evidence is clear masks work." Well, it's actually not quite that simple. It's not like we did one massive randomized control trial and now we know masks work.

Tony Mills:

What happened was we did get more evidence, more knowledge, but the expert recommendation changed because experts were weighing different kinds of factors, knowledge against new circumstance, training risks, those kinds of risks. That complicated, yes. Technical, yes. Does it go beyond narrow area of expertise? Yes. And that's what we need experts to give us their advice on, but that doesn't fully resolve the question, who gets to decide whether masks should be imposed. Is that a federal issue? Is it a state issue? What kinds of masks? How are we going to get them to people? There's a whole host of problems that follow on the tail of that. So again, I would just, I guess, say it's complicated.

Andy Smarick:

Yeah. Jocelyn, as you've been dealing with these kinds of issues, have you found that there are any scientific findings that are dispositive that just make your job easy or is a judgment always necessary? Or you find that one person will say that evidence points in one way and it ends debate, but then someone else says, "No, no, it's the other way around." And then how do you navigate that?

Jocelyn Pickford:

Certainly more of the latter in the current context. I think in education, we're always looking for the data. There are significant efforts for many years to try to follow data and understand what it means and tells us. I think education data is highly political. There are a lot of different ways to spend the same study in the same statistics, depending on populations, contexts, things of that nature. Yeah. So I think to your question about how you navigate that, so you can have, again, in the current moment, things telling us that it should be safe to open, things telling us that it shouldn't be safe to open. I think what we're trying to do at the most local level is really assess our community. And we do that through surveys and other imperfect measurements that really try to get as much authentic community input as possible.

Jocelyn Pickford:

And again, I think really it's because of the trust factor. So in a situation like this, where you're talking about people's lives and you're talking about health and safety, that community trust piece is more important than ever. When you look at other types of education data for things like curriculum choices, or what interventions you might want to have for a certain subgroup of kids who year after year are not making improvements in math, that's a lot easier, right? I can trust data for my district that shows different interventions that have helped those kids. When it comes to sending them back into schools in the middle of the pandemic, definitely not so clear.

Andy Smarick:

Jen, is there a rule of thumb that you use on this? When does practical wisdom get inched up in terms of power or inch down based on the science, the knowledge, the expertise? Like how should a public leader think about this?

Jennifer Freyk:

Well, I think that public leaders should listen to experts. I think that that matters. I think it's complicated when the experts disagree, but let's just sort of take that complication aside. II mean, there's sort of like, yes, of course you follow data, of course, you listen to health experts when you're in the middle of a pandemic. I think we've seen some of the fruits of, of not doing that, and they are not good. But I also think at the end of the day, what worries me is when I see political leaders kind of abdicate their job and just hand it over to the experts as if the experts are political leaders when they're not. I think that ultimately when we think about this specific intelligence that we want our political leaders, it's not mere expertise.

Jennifer Freyk:

Now, any kind of good practical judgment will involve a true perception of the circumstance and expertise is very important for that. But at the end of the day, a political leader has to balance competing goods and make the decision that they think is best for their specific community over which they'll have authority. I think that they have to be able to pay attention to context and circumstances that is really outside of any expertise. They have to see what's right in front of them. So again, it really depends on what kind of leadership we're talking about. Are we talking about something very local? Are we talking about something federal? I think that there is something to be said for deferring to local communities to a certain extent because each community has different circumstances. As you know, what was going on in New York in March really had very little to do with what was going on in South Dakota.

Jennifer Freyk:

So what was necessary in New York was arguably not necessary in South Dakota. I just think that we need to learn to recognize those differences. At the same time, any expert or technocrat is still a human being engaged in a human activity. It also matters that they be a good person. So I don't want to totally be like, "Well, expertise, it just doesn't matter." It does. It actually matters that our scientists also be good people. You can wreak a lot of havoc there if you ... it's like important to keep them separate in the cases where we run them together and it's problematic, but at the end of the day, we want to recognize that these are all human beings. So you're talking about an integrated human person.

Jocelyn Pickford:

I do think, just quickly, some of this leadership stuff, when you are the governor or the superintendent, whoever it is at this level, you do have to have that experience of knocking on people's doors, and facilitating difficult meetings, and being in the arena in a way that lets you know your community. So you can balance this is what I know about the scientific expertise and this is what I know about my people. That is not a science. That's an art as far as I'm concerned.

Andy Smarick:

Well, that might be a great way ... We only have about five minutes left. I want to give everyone a chance to say their final words on this, is I mean, I could imagine someone who doesn't like the subject saying Andy Smarick hosted a meeting where all they did was say, "Don't follow the science." So these are a bunch of people who are retro grade. They're trying to talk down science. What I think we're trying to do something different here and what's on my mind is like, how do we have a conversation about Dr. Fauci is great, but he was not infallible. He said some things early on about masks that he probably now regrets, or there were some public health experts who got out ahead of themselves when it came to some of the public protests aspects of this.

Andy Smarick:

So is there some rule of thumb that public leaders can use so they're not accused of being science deniers, but talking about this greater enterprise that science and scientific experts are pieces of the puzzle, but they aren't the entirety of it? So you can either pivot off of that or go in some other direction, but why don't each of you take a minute or two to say what else is on your mind? What should people take away from this?

Tony Mills:

Well, I'm happy to go first. I would say, I think it's important to keep in mind, there's a lot of [inaudible 00:56:52], especially in the backlash against the COVID policies and so on. A lot of talk in the tyranny of experts and so on, and you've kind of alluded to that, Andy, but I think it's important to keep in mind that we do still have political leaders. So the way we are relying on expertise is a function of how our leaders and how we think about that expertise. So I would emphasize the need for us to think carefully about what scientific expertise and how [inaudible 00:57:18] into our political decision making. It's not as though we just have experts coming out of the laboratories, taking over the government. If they are making decisions they shouldn't make, then that's on the political leaders. That's just the first thing I would say.

Tony Mills:

So what I would add is I think it can be tempting to think about these complex questions as like, "Look, we have the political value decisions that need to be made here and then we have the technical expert decisions that have to made here." The reality is often, it's much messier than that. If we're thinking about what kind of tests to use and how to get through to people. These are practical questions. They're also technical questions. They're also questions that require we make decisions, as I said before, about weighing the relative risks of false positives and false negatives. That's a value decision when you make that decision. So it's complicated. I think that having a more humane and humble understanding of how scientific expertise works is helpful for thinking about how to integrate it into those multifaceted political decisions.

Andy Smarick:

Professor Frey?

Jennifer Freyk:

Yeah. I guess just in terms of closing remarks, I think that we really want to have models of good leadership. We need that. We can talk about it in an abstract way, but at the end of the day in the practical life what you need are models. So I also like a conversation about who are models of good leadership and this time. I think the president of my university, Bob Caslen, has been an amazing leader. I think part of that was his experience. He was a three star general. So this is a man who understands how to operate in a crisis and keep a lot of things going. But also, I think, certain character traits that he had have really made him an excellent leader in this time.

Jennifer Freyk:

He had a plan. He stuck to it. He reached out to the community here. He got the support of local government, he got the support of all the local hospitals and medical institutions. He was like, "I want this plan to be a community plan. I want the community to feel good about this plan." He stuck to the plan under incredible pressure, incredible for pressure because I think frankly, he's got fortitude. And I said that [crosstalk 00:59:52]-

Andy Smarick:

A virtue.

Jennifer Freyk:

He takes real fortitude and that's what I'm saying. You have to have it at the end of the day. You have to have the fortitude to face all of the criticism and just remain committed. I truly believe he did truly believe he was doing the right thing. I believe he was syndicated in the final analysis. But the pressure he was under with bearing extreme. I think that there are lots of examples of disasters, but there's also examples of good leadership and I think we need to identify those and talk about why we think they were good and what we can learn from it.

Andy Smarick:

That is a great to do for me. So maybe in a couple of months from now in the new year I should get together an event of a handful of people who are generally regarded as having managed as well, whether at the university level, the state level, or something else and learn how they navigated some of this stuff. Jocelyn, you get the final word.

Jocelyn Pickford:

Yeah, just really quickly. To me, the takeaway is just the balance, is that I think what we've discussed here, I don't think there's a prevalent feeling among this panel or any other that expertise doesn't matter or that it's so subjective. It does matter. I think data is the first thing we look for, certainly in my local area, when we make decisions, but then there's also this very human element of governing and remembering that, and having some grace. It's not a popular thing to say, but like I said earlier, everyone's frustrated. We're not flourishing. So in these moments, what do we look to? What are those models of both the practical and the expert that can get us as close as we can day by day and recognize that they shift, and be willing to learn, and pivot, and make changes? But I think confident leadership is probably the biggest thing we need to focus on.

Andy Smarick:

That's great. We are perfectly right on closing time. So let me just end by thanking our three amazing guests, Jennifer Frey, and Tony Mills, and Jocelyn Pickford, for joining us and for the MI team who helped put this whole thing together and everyone who joined us online. I hope you find it as interesting as I did. We'll make this video available online and the articles that we referenced. I hope everyone has a good weekend and stays healthy and safe. Thanks folks.

Jennifer Freyk:

Thank you.

Tony Mills:

Thanks Andy.

Jocelyn Pickford:

Thank you.

Read More
TOPICS
OtherCulture & Society
Saved!
Close