There was a documentary on CBC’s Doc Zone tonight called “The Trouble With Experts” (for those that missed it, if you live in Canada and have cable, I think it re-runs on CBC News a couple of times on the weekend). It was an interesting show about the proliferation of experts and (surprise, surprise) the trouble with them.
Nowadays, we seem to rely on experts a lot. We use experts to decide how to invest our money, how to run our businesses, how to eat healthily, which houses to buy, how to decorate our houses once we’ve bought them, which wines to drink, how to find a mate, how to raise any offspring that we have with this mate, and so on and so forth. Basically, we need to; life has become too complex. Do you disagree? Well then, let’s take a random question of major importance. Is global warming a threat to our way of life, and to what extent? Can you answer that question yourself? You could, as long as you’re willing to devote every waking hour for the rest of your life to reading scientific journals full of big words that you can’t pronounce. For those of us that have better things to do than that, this is where experts come in.
There are some problems with relying on experts though. Take the global warming question mentioned above. You might find one expert who says that global warming is a serious and imminent threat that can only averted through major lifestyle changes, and another expert who says that global warming doesn’t exist and any temperature increases can be explained by natural causes, and other experts who say other things. Experts can just lead to more confusion. In the book Wrong by David Freedman, he gives the example of how best to help people who suffer sudden cardiac arrest (whether by using CPR, AEDs, or whatever else). Consulting several experts, he gets about a half-dozen different opinions. I’m sure that further examples abound. Furthermore, experts often seem to fail us when the stakes are high. No experts seem to have predicted the 2008 housing bubble crash and economic meltdown, thus causing millions of people to lose their retirement funds. Fast-forwarding to 2011, no experts predicted this year’s Arab Spring. The program also provides several other examples of experts messing up; wine experts can’t tell a great wine from an ordinary wine (unless maybe they can see what the bottle looks like). Art experts can’t tell the difference between genuine works of art and fakes. Experts’ long-term economic and political predictions are no better than chance. There are many reasons why experts are wrong. Many have no real experience in their field of expertise. Many are swayed by what they expect to see, or what they want to see, or what they hope to see. Many are making predictions in inherently unpredictable fields.
If these experts are talking BS most of the time, why are we listening to them more? Well, they’re a lot more seductive. Here’s another example: There is an inorganic chemical called dihydrogen monoxide that is used in several industrial processes. Dihydrogen monoxide is a greenhouse gas and is found in acid rain. Over 300 people in Canada alone die every year after inhaling this chemical. This chemical has also been found in cancerous tumours. Yet, despite the dangers of this chemical, no government anywhere in the world has taken any steps towards banning this chemical or restricting its use. Why is that? Everything I said was true… however, “dihydrogen monoxide” is just another word for water. It sounds a lot more drastic when I use big, intimidating words, carefully select the information presented, and sound so certain about the problem. In fact, you can go to “expert school” to learn stuff like this: Always use words like “always”, “never”, and the like, never admit uncertainty or contradict yourself or anything like that, always dress up and look your best (anyone who has read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry knows this), drive the best cars, stay in the best hotels, use jargon, and so on. If you do this, you’ll look and sound like someone who has something important to say, even if you don’t. Problem is, though, that most of the topics that we want advice on are not like mathematics or classical physics, where there is a fair degree of certainty; they concern topics that are inherently unpredictable. Thus, anyone who markets certainty is almost guaranteed to be wrong.
A second reason why there are more experts is because of the explosion of the media, such as 24-hour cable news networks. There’s a lot of time to fill, and one of the most entertaining ways to fill that is to have experts come on and raise alarm bells, bash other experts, and the like. The show didn’t discuss the impact of the Internet, if any, but I think that the Internet may make it easier for people to position themselves as experts (whereas previously you might have had to, say, write a book in order to attain expert status, which requires a lot of time and effort, the Internet provides easier ways of getting your name out there). Oh dear, did I use the word “may”? A bit of doubt on my part. Now no-one will take me to be an expert.
Another reason why experts are proliferating is that it makes it easy for people to cover their butts. Stock market “experts” may not know what they’re talking about, but, if a stock tanks, the clients would probably rather tell their bosses that they selected it based on the recommendations of experts than say that they made the choice themselves. It’s perhaps a sad reflection on our society that we’d prefer to point the finger elsewhere whenever something bad happens; it’s almost like we’ve become a nation of six-year-olds. However, that seems to be the way things are.
I think that this last reason is the most hazardous. For those of you that spend your days under a rock, there are problems in the world that are larger than what wine to choose for dinner. Take the economy, for example. Many people want the “experts” in Washington or wherever to figure out what’s wrong with the economy and fix it. Problem with this approach is that the economy is simply the sum total of everyone’s behaviour. If a lot of people are feeling insecure financially and so choose to not make a big purchase, take their money out of their stocks, hold on to their money instead of lending it to someone, not hire an employee, not start a business, not take other chances to make their life better, and so on, then the economy tanks. Conversely, once a lot of people resume buying, investing, lending, hiring, etc., then the economy gets better. However, if a lot of people sit around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for an “expert” to “do something”, thus ignoring any personal responsibility for the problem, the problem will just get worse. However, that’s what a lot of people do; they want to believe that somebody knows how to fix things.
So, what can we do? Freedman’s book Wrong offers some suggestions. Personally, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Humans are sort of hardwired this way, so fixing the problem completely is going to involve individuals thinking hard about what they’re thinking about, instead of going on autopilot. But, if we as individuals want to live our lives in a more knowledgeable way, that path is open to us.