101. The Challenges of Expertise

The widespread antipathy to experts is an angry and emotional reaction by electorates to the over-dependence on their advice. Scientific evidence and economic proposals are increasingly viewed with skepticism and their conclusions are dismissed as biased. Political and social experts are criticized for having been wrong on Iraq, Syria, Libya, immigration, the economy, inflation, prosperity and a range of technological challenges. The views of expert groups of economists, bankers, academics who opposed Britain leaving the European Union were dismissed by swaths of the population in the UK as being corrupt and incompetent. One Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove, said during the referendum campaign that Britain “has had enough of experts.”

Technocracy, or the rule by experts, has indeed conferred powers and legitimacy to governments as a way of implementing technical programs. This has long been condemned by such prominent economists as Friedrich Hayek who maintained that unchecked power should not be entrusted to “the wise and the good.” In his book, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek warned that in such technocracies there would “be special opportunities for the ruthless and the unscrupulous.” He went on to warn that “the readiness to do bad things becomes a path to promotion and power.”

Given this challenging perspective, Dan Gardner has pointed out that expertise entails more knowledge and that more knowledge produces more detail and complication which in turn makes it ever harder to come to clear and confident answers: “It will be a struggle to bring even modest clarity to the whole chaotic picture.”1

I must confess that I come from a highly skeptical background. My father, being a Berliner, was deeply suspicious of German experts. He called them “Klug Scheissers” (which can be generously translated into “smart alecks” or “know-it-alls.”) The German military experts of WWI had been disastrously wrong — as had been the generals on all sides. Years later, when he was a celebrated photographer in the United States, he found the so-called experts in the world of fashion as limited in their vision as the “experts” of the German military.

I have had the ‘privilege’ during my life to be in contact with top experts in differing professional categories. One of the foremost of these while I was still in university was the philosopher and essayist Isaiah Berlin who divided experts into two prototypes: The single “grand idea” ones whom he called ‘hedgehogs’ and the more eclectic thinkers who were the ‘foxes’. Berlin favored the foxes for having greater and more genuine foresight. He portrayed the fox as knowing many little things and being skilled at improvising when faced with rapidly changing events. The hedgehog’s perspective was limited by its single-minded determination to prevail. This was effective in winning an argument, but the foxes were more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehogs by evaluating the forecasts of a range of experts.

Over the years I have developed a wide range of attitudes towards experts in different fields. I have found the perspective of macro-economists to be unusually narrow and restricted. Ditto for the cold-war warriors I encountered. Rounding up experts for Prospects for Tomorrow, a series I edited, was surprisingly difficult: These tended to focus their essays on the immediate rather than on the wider aspects of the future.
I learned first-hand about today’s medical experts on the occasion when I entered Addenbrookes, the gigantic hospital in Cambridge, with a high fever and chest pains. I was examined by a series of specialists each of whom in turn related my problems to their area of expertise: After a brief examination, the cardiologist suspected a heart problem; the lung specialist thought it was a viral infection, the renal specialist suspected a kidney problem, and the psychologist was concerned over my mental state. As the concilium of specialists could not decide what was the cause of my condition, I was conveyed to the contagious infection unit on the top floor where I stayed for a full week. When my temperature reverted to normal, I signed myself out — never knowing what had been the exact nature of my problems.

In the medical profession, as is true elsewhere, many specialists find it difficult to look at the broad picture. Those experts who spend decades focused on one particular area are not necessarily right, but they are more likely to be correct than those unfamiliar with the subject. Dan Gardner, who has written a number of books on experts, was initially perplexed how one of the best thinkers of his time, Arnold Toynbee, could be so wrong so often. “Here was a man who probably knew more history than anyone alive. His knowledge of politics and current affairs was almost as vast. He brimmed with intelligence, energy and imagination. And yet his whole conception of the past and present was based on a mirage, and his supposed visions of the future were no more insightful than the ramblings of a man lost and wandering beneath a desert sun.”2

It is fortunate that the polymaths of yesteryear, figures like John Maynard Keynes, Isaiah Berlin, or Francis Crick — all of whom crossed many fields of knowledge — were never overwhelmed by the swiftly increasing scope of human knowledge. Wikipedia is infinitely more comprehensive than the Encyclopedia Britannica of 75 years ago. Today “stars,” who make expertise their business on the internet and relish appearances on television, are no better than the rest of us when it comes to making predictions about the future. Their analysis of events may be more perceptive, but when they are wrong it is rare for them to admit it or for them to be held accountable for their misjudgments.
Modern science has demonstrated that uncertainty, like the quantum, is an inevitable element in our world. Total certainty is an illusion. Scientists acknowledge they must avoid that feeling of certainty. Questioning and degrees of doubt are essential. On the other hand, politicians, journalists and those in business all dislike uncertainty and scorn at the use of words such as “however”, “maybe,” and “if.” At the same time, those political experts who bore us with a misty spray of “howevers” are more likely to be right about what might happen than the charismatic experts who exude confidence in their predictions.

Studies have shown that a strong commitment to ideology or theory by experts makes for prejudiced evaluations. Controversial issues such as climate change, GM crops, vaccinations, incarceration, and banking are often tied up with emotions and values passionately held by the electorate. Experts seeking to establish levels of public opinion often have to resort to work with the probability factor. However, one of the many problems encountered with probability is the way people interpret it: “High probability” is all too often turned by the media into “this will happen,” when it should be translated into ”this is likely to happen.”

The foremost American writer on expertise, Philip E. Tetlock, suggests we should view political forecasting by intelligence analysts, independent pundits, institutional specialists or media figures with the same degree of skepticism that the well-informed now apply to stock market forecasting.3 Tetlock contends that there is no direct correlation between the knowledge or intelligence of our political experts and the quality of their forecasts. To evaluate the prediction of any of these experts we should look at the ways he or she is processing information and the paths along which they are thinking. Experts often are wrong in their forecasts simply because they fail to use good judgment.

The world is becoming far more volatile in this digital age than even most intelligent people realize. Such volatility makes evaluation of our future direction far more risky for the experts. The best approach consequently is to ask provocative questions which might help to clarify the alternatives. For example, as Dr. Randall Wray has observed, professional economists actually know less about government budgeting today than they did 50 years ago.4

Another contributor to The World Economic Review, maintains that “The bottom line is that there is no fiscal debt crisis… The world is faced with enough problems as it is without us fabricating one. It is high time that we put the myths to bed and started basing policy on fact and not on fiction.”4 What haunts most experts is that what appears most likely often does not happen, while what actually occurs is quite unexpected- as in Brexit!

1Dan Gardner, Future Babble, (2010) pp.87 and p. 67
2Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment (2005)
3L. Randall Wray, “Taxes are for Redemption not Spending,” World Economic Review No.7, July 2016
4John T. Harvey, ”Worldwide Fiscal Crisis: Fact or Fiction,” World Economic Review No.7, July 2016.

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