Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Expertology: Further Delvings

There's a section of dialogue in Woody Allen's 1973 satire on science fiction, Sleeper, that always makes me laugh:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or...hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy...precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Dr. Melik: Incredible.

I'd previously blathered on about the cult of "experts" and Expertology here, and looking back at that piece...I sure was typing, eh? Yes, with rancor, certain acids, bile and possibly other gastric juices. I'm a fish out of water: a lifelong reader in very many different fields in a world that seemingly wants its specialists and "experts," which has worked out just great, hasn't it? Gawd, if it weren't for so much special learning and so many experts telling us how to live better lives and improve our world...I shudder to think. Why, without such Wise and Learned specialists in so many fields we might have found ourselves in a world that was on the brink of a worldwide depression. But good thing we learned from 1929! The experts led the way, yessiree!

Can you imagine a world without our beloved experts? I can see it now: 118 million prescriptions for antidepressants written annually in Unistat. Large chunks of our food supply tainted periodically. A 50 percent divorce rate. An epidemic...of obesity! Skyrocketing energy prices, plummeting test scores in schools, constant fear over terrorist attacks, spiraling costs of higher education with less "education" going on, and fewer jobs for college graduates...

I took some of these examples from David H. Freedman's marvelously provocative and well-written 2010 book Wrong: Why Experts* Keep Failing Us - And How to Know When Not to Trust Them The asterisk in the title is elaborated upon at the bottom of the front cover: "Scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, high-powered consultants, health officials, and more."

A quarter of the way through this book, I thought of the quote from Sleeper; it's funny because it's almost true: how easy it is to find, if one goes far enough back, quotes from "experts" in any field that now appear to have proven almost 180 degrees wrong. So why do we listen to experts?

Because they're sometimes right, says Freedman. At least that's one reason. "Perhaps a reasonable model for expert advice," Freedman says,  "is one I might call 'punctuated wrongness' -- that is, experts usually mislead us, but every once in a while they come up with truly helpful advice."

Of particular fascination for me was Freedman's two chapters on wrongness among scientists and scientific "expertise." He also has chapters on "The Certainty Principle," "The Idiocy of Crowds," experts working within organizations, experts in the media, and a chapter on how Internet exacerbates wrongness.

His last major chapter must not be missed, and I don't want to give anything away, but it's called "Eleven Simple Never-Fail Rules for Not Being Misled By Experts."
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This is a doozy for Expertologists, and anyone with an interest in the field will want to have it on their shelf, or, because experts crashed the economy and you don't have money for books, get it from your local library and bask in this, a brilliantly disguised book of social epistemology masking itself as a popular "caveat" book by an author who's a widely published journalist on business and science.

I can see I've gone on too long here for a mere blogspew, so maybe I'll write more on Expertology and Freedman in the near-future. But let it suffice for now that, if you're wondering about physics, government, diet, finance, sports, hurricane preparedness, child-rearing techniques, what recent entertainments are likely to stand the test of time, secrets of great management, tips on the stock market, cholesterol-lowering drugs, who will likely be the party's nominee for President, getting kids to sleep through the night, the benefits of vitamins and alcohol and aspirin and fish, the existence of WMDs, ethanol, how much sun exposure you can safely receive, the Mozart effect, multitasking, making the curricula less rigid and more test-centered, the effects of violent video games, getting into the "right" college, the importance of eight hour's sleep, whether women are attracted to "nice guys" or "bad boys," on and on...you will find the very best experts, specialists that you can trust, Learned Wise Folk with advanced degrees from our finest universities who will tell you...well, you can guess what they'll say.

"The fact is, expert wisdom usually turns out to be at best highly contested and ephemeral, and at worst flat-out wrong." - Freedman

And he shows in glaring detail why this is so. This book, as far as I can tell, received scant note by the popular media (Gee, I wonder why?), but surely deserved much more. What a little gem of a book. It's a...<ahem> sleeper?

[I live in California, and Amazon has no affiliate program, so I'm hawking this book merely as a public service. Scout's honor! - the OG]

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