Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Trouble With Experts

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.

After America by Mark Steyn

This is a book review for Mark Steyn’s bestselling book After America. Like other book reviews I’ve done here, I’m sort of going to jump around here and there throughout the text, insert my own thoughts where I feel it makes sense, and the like.

I’ll start with some general stuff. Steyn presents one fairly-coherent argument throughout the book, although he jumps here and there weaving thousands of news items together, a rather interesting approach. Steyn’s writing style is quite light, and laugh-out-loud humourous at points, although you may not find it as funny at places where you disagree with Steyn. In America Alone, I found Steyn’s anti-Muslim bias to be a bit annoying. While it is present in After America, it’s not the focus of the book, so I didn’t find that to be a problem for me. Democrats are also a prime target of Steyn, so left-leaning people may want to skip the first part of the book as well as other bits.

The basic premise of the book is this: In his book America Alone, Steyn indicated that all of the industrialized nations, save the United States, were in for a big collapse. Now, however, it seems America has signed on to join the club.

The introduction of the book starts off pretty simply. If something can’t go on forever, it’s going to have to come to a stop sooner or later. Pretty obvious, right? Well, apparently not to those in Washington, because the current unsustainable level of Federal spending is one of those things that is going to have to come to a stop. If you’re spending $4 trillion a year while only bringing in $2 billion a year, either it will eventually become pretty obvious that you have no intention of ever paying the debts off, and China and everyone else who lends the United States money will cut the U.S. off, or the debt will become so enormous that it will bring the country down. Sooner or later, one way or another, the excessive Federal spending will come to a stop. But, the United States hasn’t always had to borrow the way it does now; will we be able to go back to the way thing were? Well, that’s sort of the other problem. Steyn opines that the United States doesn’t quite have what it takes anymore.

It should be no surprise that Steyn believes that government bureaucracy is unhealthy for society as a whole, and he illustrates it with many examples in the book, which would be hilarious if they weren’t true. Meanwhile, as government gets larger and larger, the amount of productive stuff that it seems to do gets smaller and smaller. The book mentions a few examples. In the 1930s, the United States federal government let a contract to build the Hoover Dam. It took only five years to construct, and the project provided jobs during the Depression, created a major tourist attraction, and provides over a billion watts of renewable energy, thus significantly helping the settlement of the area. Has the United States done anything comparable lately? Or take the decade prior to 1969, when America’s space program went from basically nothing to landing a man on the moon. Now we can’t even put a man into space; we’re dependent on Kazakhstan to send them out there. The book cites a quote that claims that Obama has asked NASA to make one of its primary goals to reach out to Muslim nations so that they feel good about their contributions to science. Since Kazakhstan’s population is mostly Muslim, this might be a good strategy to ensure that they don’t cut the United States off, but one can’t help feeling that something’s gone wrong. The book doesn’t do this, but we could perhaps compare the 1940s, in which the United States Army, with some help, managed to defeat both Germany and Japan in the space of only four years, with more recent happenings, in which it took them nearly 10 years to hunt down a single man, and where they’ve created even bigger messes in Iraq and Afghanistan than the messes they were trying to fix in the first place. Why is this all happening?

The book details a few reasons. The first is that, as government grows, it starts spending a lot of time preventing people from doing reasonable things. The book details several examples of county public health units prohibiting things like kids’ lemonade stands, people selling homemade pies at bake sales, and a hardware store providing free coffee and doughnuts to its customers. These sorts of silly rules prevent a lot of positive things; for example, a kid running a lemonade stand has the opportunity to learn about initiative, entrepreneurship, the value of money, and a lot of things that they aren’t going to learn in school. It seems, though, that local public health units would rather have kids sit in front of the TV and increase their risk for developing diabetes and heart disease, so that they can justify an increase in their budget to fight those problems. How disingenious of them.

That’s one of the other things about government, though: It has a tendency to reward failure. You’re a car company that makes cars only marginally better than Yugos and goes bankrupt? Payout! You’re a bank that blows your investors’ money on bad investments? Payout! You’re an individual who can’t hack it in the world of work? Payout! (Kind of reminds me of Flo in those Progressive auto insurance commercials. Maybe she could get a job in government). In turn, rewarding failure ends up discouraging success. Imagine that you could wave a magic wand and completely eliminate a societal problem that the government spends a lot of resources on, such as the War on Drugs or the War on Cancer or the War on Terror or even something important that isn’t really a war, like violent crime or unemployment or whatever. What would happen? Well, it would mean mass unemployment, mostly among government employees or those whose jobs are a result of government funding. So, the people in the government whom we trust to solve our problems have a vested interest in ensuring that they don’t get solved.

Fortunately, there is a sure-fire formula for failure. It’s to cram a whole bunch of conflicting goals into any project that is undertaken. Looking back again at the Hoover Dam and World War II and the Apollo program, they all had a pretty clear focus. Would the Apollo program have met its goals if it were required to provide a venue for scientific research and the rocket ships had to be made from parts built in impoverished areas of the United States and had to be wheelchair-accessible and barrier-free and the crews had to represent all of the genders, races, and cultures of America? Would the Hoover Dam have been built two years ahead of schedule if, in order to stimulate the economy in Connecticut, they had to use concrete from Connecticut (which would probably take forever to get there and have hardened before it could be poured), and if they had to ensure there were no impact to any ecosystems in the river? Would World War II have been won as quickly if the Army’s top priority was workplace diversity? Probably not. However, once you get enough levels of government with enough departments with conflicting priorities, it’s almost inevitable that projects will wind up like that.

With government making it difficult for people to succeed and rewarding them for failing, it isn’t a surprise that this sort of mediocrity is spreading to the private sector. As I’m writing this paragraph, I’m on a bus that’s passing by a century-old office building in my town. They’re busy restoring the historic façade of the building. Well, maybe “busy” isn’t the correct word for this, because they’ve spent three years on the project and it appears to only be half done. This despite the fact that the façade wasn’t in that bad shape to begin with. Interestingly enough, the entire building only took two years to build 100 years ago. Why is it taking so much longer to do a much smaller task? The book provides a lot of more prominent examples too.

But, no matter what the evidence of decadence, Steyn feels that it can all trace back to individuals (or at least that’s my reading of the book). Sure, the U.S. federal government may be spending twice as much as it brings in, but it was the citizens that elected it. The county health unit may be making weird rules, but people meekly follow those rules. Policies may prohibit police officers from saving drowning people, but it’s individuals that choose to follow those policies.

In the introduction, Steyn quotes an interesting blog post by Bruce Charlton that asserts that human capability had peaked around 1965–75 and has been going downwards ever since. Steyn also commonly uses an example of a time traveller from 1890 who travels to 1950 and finds that everything has changed. Moving forward another 60 years, the time traveller might not be able to find the same degree of changes. Sure, the TV screens are flatter and in colour and whatnot, but the sort of revolutionary changes between 1890 and 1950 aren’t there. Personally, as someone who spends most of their time using a technology that wasn’t available in 1950, I would disagree with that statement, but let’s assume that it’s true for the rest of the review. Steyn illustrates a lot of examples of this downhill trend throughout the book, and even manages to find an interesting analogy from a socialist-leaning work of fiction. In one chapter Steyn compares, and not entirely favourably, modern humanity with the Eloi of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, a childlike, uncurious, undisciplined, decadent race. Steyn provides lots of examples of this decadence in the book. The basic idea is that, like the Eloi, modern Americans have sort of gone soft.

So why has this happened? The book explores several possible reasons. One reason is, as government gets bigger, the citizen gets worse. Americans donate more per person to charity than those of nations with larger governments, whose citizens spend more time worrying about what’s in it for them. Steyn paints a portrait of Greek civil service that makes me want to move to Greece and become a civil servant. The typical Greek civil servant works 24/7: 24 hours a week, 7 months a year. And don’t forget early retirement, which can come even earlier if you perform a hazardous profession like, say, cutting hair. Sure, Greece is an excellent example of a civil service gone soft, but this sort of thing can be found in America as well. However, it’s kind of hard to stop the gravy train. If you try, well, the results aren’t pretty. I’m reminded of the quote in Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love: “In a mature society, ‘civil servant’ is semantically equal to ‘civil master.’”

Bigger government also results in more micromanagement of every aspect of people’s lives. Even though Americans live in a democracy, their lives are controlled and micromanaged to a greater degree than any despot who lived at least a few hundred years ago could have dreamed of. Obviously, this makes it a little more difficult to operate anywhere near your full potential.

Steyn also laments the education of the citizenry, both formally and informally. It appears that Americans are no longer educated on what it means to be an American; the school system cranks out graduates that can’t read or write; in college, feel-good courses have replaced courses that teach actual knowledge; many Americans seem unable to make sound judgements about, well, almost anything.

Steyn also sees the country being populated with Peter Pans. Sure, males may not have wanted to grow up in previous generations either, but marriage and children forced them to. Nowadays, there’s no pressure nowadays to do either. Government has a hand in here too; while there have always been idle youth in Great Britain, previously this was reserved for scions of the rich, not necessarily anyone. With the government rewarding failure and discouraging success, it makes it perfectly acceptable to “fail”.

When you sum it up, it adds up to big potential problems. Fortunately, Steyn is also willing to provide suggested solutions.

Steyn presents a very compelling argument, but the anecdote-based nature of the argument suggests that more formal investigation could be necessary. Is this generation really all that bad? There is a history of every generation seeing the worst in the succeeding generation, and possibly this is just more of the same. I wonder whether history is biased in preserving the better examples of past generations, which of course will compare favourably to the modern average.  As well, Steyn doesn’t give a lot of weight to some significant recent advances, such as the proliferation of computers (as I previously mentioned).  Sure, the fact that we have computers hasn’t made all of our problems go away, but perhaps more credit is due here?  There are various other little points of Steyn’s that I would disagree with, but I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible for any one person to agree with absolutely everything argued in a book of that size. All in all, a very interesting book.