Professor's House

Should You Trust the Advice of an Expert?

It seems that anytime a subject comes up nowadays, someone has an ‘expert’ to back-up their claims. News stories have expert contributors. Courts use ‘expert’ witnesses. Politicians use ‘expert’ consultants. So what they are telling us must be right…right? Well…maybe not so much.

In the first place, how are we to determine who is actually an expert? Most dictionaries define an expert as, “One who has training, knowledge, or experience in a particular area or subject”. Really? So, if I have taken a few courses in psychology, does that mean I am an expert in Social Sciences? Or, better yet, if I served one enlistment in the US Marine Corps, does that make me an expert in Combat Tactics? According to the definition, it does. But in the real scheme of things…I think not.

As a rule, when we see, hear, or read something from an expert, we don’t really know anything about them, other than someone says they are an expert. Usually, they say something like, “John Smith, an instructor at the Shangri La Institute of Technology supports the evidence of Global Warming”. OK, we now know that Mr. Smith teaches…somewhere (or maybe works at a Diploma Mill….). Where is this Shangri La Institute? And, we don’t know what he teaches. For all we know, he could be teaching knitting. And what has he done other than teach? Teaching a subject does not necessarily indicate you have any talent in the subject. We all remember teachers who were somewhat less than enlightening from our own school days. Teachers usually teach from a curriculum written by…well, who knows? Many teachers are not even teaching subjects they majored or minored in. So what does this mean?

Absolutely nothing! Every day, we are bombarded with ‘expert’ messages from people who may not even know as much about a particular subject as we do. Taking classes in a particular subject does not indicate you have any particular talent for it. Politics, in particular, makes extensive use of expert ‘credentials’ to get what they want. No matter what it is you are trying to convince someone of, with enough money and enticements, you can find an ‘expert’ to back you up. In fact, there are ‘experts’ that make a living simply by being ‘expert’ witnesses in court, without ever having accomplished much else in life. Here is another good example: Anyone can write and publish a book nowadays. The subject doesn’t matter. You can do research and simply re-write what others have done before you. But once you publish a book, you are perceived as being an ‘expert’ on the subject.

Studies have been done to test the accuracy of ‘expert’ predictions 1,2,3,. In all of them, the conclusions were that the accuracy of predictions made by experts were little better than random choice, and much less accurate than predictions based on statistical models. In fact, the experts scored better when making predictions outside of their area of expertise.

How can this be? These people are supposed to be educated, trained and experienced in their fields. Most of us have heard the old saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” It seems this may be more true than we ever imagined. Apparently, according to the studies, experts are so wrapped up in their fields than they are unable to relate to things outside of it. Anything they see, hear or read about is a tree, no matter if it is a telephone pole, a pillar, or a monolith. In other words, an eminent psychiatrist, such as Sigmund Freud, would likely regard a misbehaving child as one with some sort of mental aberration, rather than just being difficult.

Think about all the times experts have been wrong:

  • In 1929, just days before the Stock Market crash that caused the Great Depression, economists were saying the stock market would set new record highs in the next few days…
  • Eddie Bond to Elvis Presley, after turning him down for a spot in his band…”Stick to driving a truck, because you’ll never make it as a singer…”
  • Dick Rowe of Decca Records, to the Beatles in 1962, after turning them down for a recording contract…, “We don’t like your sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out…”
  • In 1941, military experts from the US Army, US Navy and the White House missed all the warning signs of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • Ben Bernanke, former Chairman, Federal Reserve, shortly before the Real Estate Crash…”a moderate cooling in the housing market, should one occur, would not be inconsistent with the economy continuing to grow at or near its potential next year.”
  • The George W. Bush Administration ignored repeated warnings of an eminent terrorist attack before 9/11/2001.
  • My favorite…The Chicago Tribune headline on the day after the 1948 Presidential Election….”Dewey Defeats Truman”…

….and many, many more…

So, how can we sort information as to it’s validity when offered by experts? There are a few things we can do:

  • Check the experts credentials and track-record. If someone you never heard of before says something about Global Warning, and it turns out they have never done anything but teach economics at a backwater Community College, take it with a grain of salt.
  • Check to see if the experts position is verified from other trusted independent sources.
  • Find out who paid for the expert. If an expert says that electric cars cannot be made practical, and he is being paid by oil companies….
  • Try and find out if the expert has an axe to grind, or is known for trying to make a name for themselves.
  • Lastly, see if the expert may have something to gain personally from his or her position.

In the end, it may just come down to your own good judgement. My best advice is…believe about half of what you hear, and trust no one at face value. Do your own research and make your own conclusions. According to studies, your position is probably just as accurate as theirs… at least by a 50% margin.

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