Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Trust the Experts?

It was a plum assignment. Every weekday at 5PM the soldier was to fire a cannon to announce the end of the normal work day. The only problem was that he did not have a watch. However he noticed that a jewelry store, about a quarter of a mile away, had a clock in a tower, facing the fort. The fort was equipped with a good telescope so he simply used that to read the jeweler's clock.

One Saturday he got curious and asked the jeweler about his clock. The jeweler informed him that it was an excellent clock, one of the best of its kind. “In addition I check it every day against official government time. It is always right on the correct time.”

The soldier was intrigued. If he could get that official time he wouldn't have to use the telescope. “Sir, would you tell me please how you do this check with official time?”

“Oh, it's quite easy young man. Every day at 5 O'clock they fire a cannon over at the fort. I just check my clock against that.”*

That story has applications far beyond telling time. Just as the jeweler and soldier each trusted the other to be an expert, it is easy to trust “experts” who may not know what they're talking about. Now of course real experts are worth listening to, but even they can be wrong. It behooves each of us to use our own intelligence to determine where we get information and how that information does or does not apply to our own situations. Examples of problems caused by “experts” are myriad.

I was the victim of one such example a few years ago. One morning I tried to log on to the computer I needed for my job but couldn't get in. I finally got hold of the administrator and learned that a consultant (self-appointed expert) had told them to change my login name “to avoid confusion.” It seems the name consisted of my nickname and first letter of my last name. That ended up spelling out hall. The consultant said that could be confused with someone with the last name of Hall. However nobody but me ever used that name in that database so there was no way for it to cause confusion.

Why did the consultant demand the change? I didn't get to talk to him but I strongly suspect it was because he had to do something. If a consultant comes into a company and says everything is great, the company managers will think that he didn't do anything to justify his pay. For that reason many consultants will find something to change, even if the change is not an improvement.

Our society has a surfeit of experts. Some are worth listening to, others should have duct tape placed permanently over their mouths. Most can contribute if we apply critical thinking to their pronouncements. However swallowing their advice uncritically causes problems.

So how can we determine which experts are worth listening to? It isn't easy but there are some things that help. First, what are the expert's credentials? Does he have a good background in the specific area of claimed expertise? This should be considered a necessary but not sufficient condition for trusting him. If he lacks training and experience there is no reason to think he knows more about the subject than we do.

Second, what is his track record? A diploma on the wall represents time in a classroom, passing tests etc. It does not guarantee sound judgment, nor does it certify lack of bias. However if that expert can point us to several previous successes, our confidence can increase.

Third, do the expert's recommendations pass the “smell test?” Do they really make sense, or if not can he explain why our intuition is wrong? We need to think critically, not just turn over our decisions to someone else. We live with the results; the expert will probably go on to the next client and never think of our problem again.

This advice applies to all experts but there are some who should arouse special suspicion. First, the friends and neighbors with good intentions. It is a human tendency to want to help our friends. It is also a human tendency to want to appear knowledgeable. The combination of those two tendencies causes all of us to want to give advice, even when we are not real experts. That is an invitation to trouble.

For example during the Vietnam War, some soldiers swallowed the rumor that snorting heroin was not addictive. They believed their fellow soldiers instead of the medical experts, thinking that those medical people were just trying to spoil a good time. Those soldiers who acted on that belief came home addicted and found that the weaker drug on the streets of the U.S. required mainlining to get the same effect as snorting the Vietnamese version.

An even more dangerous “expert” is the politician. Somehow they often think that the ability to attract votes gives them superior wisdom. As a result we have lawyers deciding on health care and economic matters. Worse, their “expertise” takes on the force of law and they are often immune to feedback from the real world. The only thing that gets their attention is a threat of not getting re-elected.

One example of this is the “War on Poverty” proposed by Kennedy and enacted into law during the Johnson administration. This was supposed to solve the problem of poverty in the U.S. with massive government programs. The promise was that it would help people become productive citizens so they didn't need help. The results were quite the opposite. First the number below the poverty line decreased but only because of the tax money people were receiving. The number of people whose actual earnings were above the poverty level increased. Then as people found how easy it was to get on those programs the number in poverty increased, even counting the relief benefits they were receiving.

And how did the political “experts” react to that failure of their programs? Did they recognize the failure and correct the problem they had created? Of course not, that would have been an admission of error. Instead they first moved the target, pointing only to the number of people above the poverty line with benefits included, and ignoring their promise that the need for tax-funded relief would be reduced. Then, when it became apparent that they couldn't even hit that target, they claimed things would be worse without their pet programs. Of course they ignored the fact that the number of people in poverty had been decreasing for decades before the War on Poverty. That “war” was associated with an increase, not a decrease in poverty.**

There are many similar examples. Sex education was associated with an increase in teen pregnancy and venereal disease. “Curing” social problems increased rather than decreased crime. Those problems had been declining before the political “solutions” were instituted.***

Why do “experts” such as politicians get away with such nonsense? It is simply because we fail to think critically about their proposed programs. Then we compound that failure by not looking at the results after the programs are in place.

Experts can help us with many issues. However the onus is on us to use due care in picking and believing those experts, and in evaluating the results of their recommendations.

*This is based on a story I heard as a youth. I have not been able to identify a source so cannot give credit for the idea. Also, a note to literal scientific types such as myself: Yes there is a delay of just over a second between the firing of the cannon and when the jeweler hears it. However he can compensate by knowing how long that delay is.

**cf. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed, pp9-15

Ibid, pp15-30. This book includes many other examples of how “experts” have worsened the problems they promised to solve.

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Lisa said...

Interesting points Dad, but aren't you setting yourself up as a "consultant"--with no real experience or proof of your ability to help?

However i have absolutely seen what well-intentioned (or well bribed) legislators have done with education and medicine--two controversial topics which should be addressed by experts in their own respective fields, not just whomever has garnered our vote.

Interesting points. As for teen sex--this was also a time when the media became more liberal, was allowed to show a husband & wife sleeping in the same bed (think back to i love lucy) and so forth. Every problem is so multifaceted it's a wonder we get anything done.

Hal Lillywhite said...

Yes, I do present myself as a consultant. However I ask clients to apply the critical thinking I advocate on this blog and specifically say that I'm there to help them, not to make decisions for them. My goal is to help them see all aspects of a decision and think carefully about it.

Hal Lillywhite said...

PS. I don't think the TV/movie showing husband and wife in the same bed had any effect. Children already knew their parents slept together so it was rather silly to show them in separate beds. However the promiscuous behavior now shown as normal probably has had an effect though the "sexual revolution" started well before that became common on TV. It started time-coincident with the push for sex education in the schools as Sowell documents. It only accelerated with the current lack of entertainment standards.

Time coincidence does not prove cause and effect, but when disease and teen pregnancy were decreasing and start to increase at the same time that sex ed is taking off you have to think there may be a connection.

Add to that the fact that many sex educators had as their goal giving kids the right attitude about sex rather than reducing their sexual behavior and there is heavy evidence of cause and effect. (This last also documented in the book.)

Bobkatt said...

I look to Thomas Sowell to illuminate many issues that I might grapple with. He seems to be able to attack a problem without the usual one sided approach.
Another interesting look at economic issues is Freakonomics. Wonder if you have read it?

Hal Lillywhite said...

I've read Freakonomics but long enough ago that my memory of it is hazy. I do remember thinking that it wasn't up to Sowell's standards (but then not much is).