Letters appearing in the spring 2020 print issue are marked by a double ##.
The war comes to campus
##I started at Notre Dame in 1969 and do not recall much about the Notre Dame 10 (“Fifteen minutes, 50 years later”). I was concerned with being away from home, adjusting to college and Notre Dame football. Vietnam was not something I thought about very much. I was not attuned to what was going on in the world. Like many of us back then, I didn’t watch the evening news, and the only newspaper was The Observer. I was much more focused on calculus, chemistry and physics.
This changed the following spring when I walked across South Quad on May 5, 1970, and saw four wooden gravestones in the grass bearing the names of the students killed the day before at Kent State. Something clicked in me. The war became a reality, even though I did not know those students. Kent State made me aware, maybe for the first time, that a lot was going on outside campus that was very important. I became one of millions of young people who cared about what was going on and what we could do, individually and collectively, to effect change.
This consciousness grew with the rallies, the speakers and the Masses for peace on the quads. It continues, as I am concerned today about what is going on in our country. Doing something about it matters to me. I hope this is true of Notre Dame students today.
John Andryszak ’73
##Reading “Fifteen minutes, 50 years later” reminded me of my draft status freshman year. A few students were skipping classes and recording the draft lottery numbers with corresponding birth dates. After my first class I went to my dorm to see if my birthday had come up. Reading down the lines, I found I got number 5. Talk about a stunned ox. I could not wrap my head around it. I think I looked three separate times before it sunk in. I went to my room and made a sign with #5 at the top and the word “f---” below. Attached it to the back of my shirt and wore it all day.
My dad was a 20-year member of the Army and we had a close cousin who did four tours in Vietnam, first as a Navy pilot shot down twice before doing two tours as a Navy SEAL. When he was back in the States, he took me aside one day and told me I should not go. He told me to claim conscientious objector status or go to Canada. He was my idol telling me this. I did go through my physical and preinduction exam before the draft ended.
I really cringe every day when the national news comes on. I have to believe we are better than this and can do more to save the world and have mutual respect for our brothers and sisters no matter what their race, political views or gender identity. We are all God’s children.
Gerald Elliott Hill ’75
El Paso, Texas
A review of the experts
##It took David Shribman (“What’s Wrong with Experts?”) about 50 paragraphs to get to a key issue when it comes to “experts” and how we should treat them. Trust.
My first job after Notre Dame was the Vietnam War. The strategy employed by Robert McNamara and the Harvard-educated “Whiz Kids” was apparently based on the assumption that the French had lost their Vietnam war but we could do better. We didn’t. Pardon me for becoming a skeptic when it comes to both government and experts. It’s easy when you trip over dead bodies.
I would hope Notre Dame’s curriculum encourages its students to observe how changes take place in an open society: Some person or entity challenges the generally accepted truth whether it be in science, government, economics, religion, etc. An excellent example is Einstein’s challenge of Newtonian physics. No one doubts Newton was a genius but Einstein showed he was wrong on several key points. Likewise, Werner Heisenberg showed that Einstein was shortsighted in quantum physics. These men were brilliant but sometimes wrong.
Hopefully, our alumni become leaders in advancing their areas of endeavor. That will require challenging the status quo. They may be right; they may be wrong; progress demands they try.
Stephen C. Hook ’65
##David Shribman’s article was curiously secular and political, unusual for Our Lady’s magazine. Here is a more theological thought: Jesus chose fishermen to run his new organization. Ponder that for an insight into “What’s Wrong with Experts?”
Bob Fischer ’70
Brightwaters, New York
##The real problem is not a general rejection of experts but determining exactly who is an expert and their area of expertise. For example, David Shribman is either an expert in expertise or merely a skilled writer with a thinly veiled political agenda. If the former is true, he raises some serious cultural concerns. If the latter is the case, he merely provokes the skepticism of the “experts” that he decries.
Phil Yasuhara ’75M.A.
##I think David Shribman misses the point. It isn’t expertise that most people mistrust, it’s experts. There is a growing sense that experts are not purveyors of expertise, they are manipulators of expertise. We would like to think that experts start with an open, inquisitive mind, that they spend their time coldly and dispassionately analyzing data, that they draw objective conclusions and then present these conclusions to us. What we suspect is happening instead is that experts begin with a bias, that they approach their field with a desire not for truth, but for affirmation of their own opinions.
Never have we had to rely more heavily on experts. It all “comes down to trust,” Shribman rightly says. But can you trust others to make important decisions for you? More and more, the answer seems to be either, “I’m not sure,” or a frank “no.”
I see this in my own field, medicine, where hundreds of despicable creatures known as plaintiff’s whores — “expert” doctors — will testify to anything the plaintiff’s attorney wants as long as they get paid. The list goes on. Is kale actually good for you, or is the nutritional expert on the Today show being paid by the kale industry? Do cell phones really cause cancer, or is the oncologist on Good Morning America trying to make a name for himself? Are single-parent families just as stable as dual-parent families, or is the sociologist on CBS This Morning trying to justify her own lifestyle? The answer is, we don’t know. For a society that relies so heavily on trusting the integrity and expertise of others, this is a disturbing trend.
Michael J. Collins, M.D. ’71
##As a longtime litigator and now a trial judge, I believe the legal definition of an expert utilized at trial would be useful. “An expert is a person who has special knowledge or skill in some science and profession, occupation or subject that the witness acquired by training, education or experience,” whose knowledge or skill may “supply jurors with specialized information, explanations and opinions that will help them decide a case.” Pennsylvania jury instructions add that while such a witness is referred to as an “expert” and “may have special knowledge or skill,” this “does not mean that their testimony and opinions are right.” Jurors are to decide what credibility and weight to give an expert’s testimony.
This summarizes how anyone should address the opinion of an expert. It certainly is not uncommon in trial to have “battling experts,” where equally qualified and credentialed experts reach entirely different conclusions. They are often challenged on their respective degrees of objectivity and possible bias — and how much they are compensated for their testimony. If experts want to be accepted in today’s society, they need to advance understanding instead of demanding faithful acceptance.
William T. Tully ’79
David Shribman expressed disappointment with a willingness to ignore expertise. At a deeper level, it appears that the public has lost confidence in many of our institutions. The linkage between these two assertions seems obvious and merits further consideration. Shribman’s essay also acknowledged that trust in experts is to be earned and not automatically granted.
The percentage of college graduates, male and female, in our country has never been higher. It would be presumptuous to expect them not to exercise judgment of expert opinion. Beyond that, is it possible to deny anyone the right to exercise judgement of expert opinion? Isn’t our political system based on the right of registered voters to pass collective judgement on the qualifications of hopefully expert candidates for local, state and federal offices?
Consider the following:
Doctors, functioning as experts, have contributed substantially to the opioid crisis with the reckless distribution of prescriptions.
The expert politicians, policymakers and economists who managed affairs leading up to and during the 2008 financial meltdown seem essentially indistinguishable from the expert politicians, policymakers and economists now tasked with correcting the resulting problems. Have these experts provided a truly convincing argument for negative interest rates?
These are only two examples of how public trust has been squandered. It would be a simple matter to expand the list with the consideration of other issues. Given that, it seems reasonable to question how much trust our experts deserve. It also seems reasonable to ponder where we might go from here. As the saying goes: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”
William Kucera ’57
David Shribman believes that we should not question the “experts” and their science behind vaccines. Can any of these experts tell us what the long-term effects might be from vaccine ingredients such as aluminum phosphate, mercury, neomycin sulfate and formaldehyde, to name just a few? Is it possible these ingredients cause dementia? Parkinson’s disease? Autism? You won’t be able to ascertain an answer from these experts.
And follow the money trail. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 30 years, you know that your general practitioner is getting a hefty kickback from big pharmaceutical companies to promote and prescribe any of the statins. You can bet your paycheck that Big Pharma has influenced politicians and school boards with huge sums of money to get us all vaccinated. Money is the reason why “common sense” folk don’t trust the experts. There is always too much money behind the scenes. Every commercial during the evening news is all about asking your doctor for a drug the next time you enter their clinic.
My old hometown ex-Army physician told my parents that it was OK to experience the measles, mumps and chicken pox. It eventually made your immune system stronger to fight off other diseases. All you have to do is follow the money trail and you will understand why many citizens are waking up and realizing the experts are blowing smoke up our chimneys regarding vaccinations and statins.
Brian Sontchi ’75
I don’t claim to be an expert on anything. But I do study the past and try to understand the present. The future? Not so much. Common sense.
Cy Letzelter ’64
Kerry Temple’s insight (“Don’t Tell Me What to Do”) succinctly describes a deeply ingrained part of our national DNA. The farther west, south and outside the large cities you travel (until you hit the coasts), the stronger the stubborn streak. Here, in my hometown on the far edge of western Colorado, Trump’s insolent behavior feeds staunch support regardless of whether policies return the favor. How can this be?
Many people here descend from the least accepted and most independent of immigrants, who traveled far into the unknown while fleeing various sorts of tyrannical control. Therefore reactions to the centralized ideas of Trump’s predecessors generally range from dubious to hostile, sometimes for understandable reasons. Gun control isn’t necessary in these open spaces, climate-change policy eliminates the best paying of blue-collar jobs and decisions about public lands (Westerners’ backyards) are made by unaccountable bureaucrats, thousands of miles away. On the other hand, most of these same folks are unaware that they receive more federal dollars than they paid, and they eagerly sign up for Social Security, Medicare, etc. Apparently individualistic populism can be fickle.
This rugged and imperfect DNA has influenced many historical events. It created and defended the first modern independent republic against tyrannical kings and fascists. Sadly it has also harmed indigenous cultures, damaged the environment and waited centuries to share its ideals with all citizens. This DNA will always be here and must be reckoned with, whether or not it’s needed or useful at the moment. Hopefully the next generation of leaders will not disregard it, and will instead mold this energy into a more positive direction.
Ivan Geer ’94
Grand Junction, Colorado
The narrow gate
Being a transfer student was once an affordable way to attend Notre Dame. By attending an affordable community college or state school for two years, a student could save enough money to attend Notre Dame for the final two years and graduate with a lower financial burden than those who went there for four. Now (“The Gateway”) 50 percent of the transfer class is reserved for those who can afford $32,000 tuition and a $7,000 administrative fee at Holy Cross. I guess “Notre Dame” and “affordable” shouldn't be used in the same sentence anymore.
David Vazquez ’00
Seal Beach, California
“The Gateway” brought back many memories of my time at the then-Holy Cross Junior College from 1976 to ’78. I had done well in high school but applied to Holy Cross primarily because that is what my older brother William ’76 had done, and I could afford the tuition by working two jobs. I did well at Holy Cross (one A-minus in two years), and, once again following my brother’s footsteps, applied to transfer to Notre Dame.
This is where my experience differs from the article. Despite my youthful antics (Brother John Driscoll, CSC, the college’s first president, only once had to raise his voice with me), I was accepted into what was then called the General Program at Notre Dame. I was told (I believe by Brother John) that only five students nationwide were allowed to transfer into the program as juniors that year, and two of them were from Holy Cross (one being me).
I confess to some envy that the Gateway students are allowed to transfer as sophomores. As a junior, I was required to complete the three-year General Program curriculum in two years. This meant doubling up on the Great Books courses for at least a year (and I was still working two jobs). I struggled, but I had such great professors, including Steve Rogers, Ed “B-minus” Cronin and Katherine Tillman. A lot has changed at both Holy Cross and Notre Dame since my time, but I am grateful for the opportunities I was granted, and wish all the modern Gateway students well.
Dan McInerny ’80