Economics, Environment, Hypothesis, Social Science

The Limits of Expertise

“People are sick of experts.” These infamous and much-derided words uttered by UK Conservative parliamentarian Michael Gove express a sentiment with which we are now probably all familiar. It has come to represent a sign of the times—either an indictment or a celebration (depending on one’s political point of view) of our current age.

Certainly, the disdain for expertise and its promised consequences have been highly alarming for many people. They are woven through various controversial and destabilising phenomena from Trump, to Brexit, to fake news, to the generally ‘anti-elitist’ tone that characterises populist politics and much contemporary discourse. And this attitude stands in stark contrast to the unspoken but assumed Obama-era doctrine of “let the experts figure it out”; an idea that had a palpable End of History feeling about it, and that makes this abrupt reversion to ignorance all the more startling.

The majority of educated people are fairly unequivocal in their belief that this rebound is a bad thing, and as such many influential voices—Quillette‘s included—have been doing their best to restore the value of expertise to our society. The nobility of this ambition is quite obvious. Why on earth would we not want to take decisions informed by the most qualified opinions? However, it is within this obviousness that the danger lies.

I want to propose that high expertise, whilst generally beneficial, also has the capacity in certain circumstances to be pathological as well—and that if we don’t recognise this and correct for it, then we will continue down our current path of drowning its benefits with its problems. In short, if you want to profit from expertise, you must tame it first.

To draw a line between when high expertise helps and when it potentially hinders, we first need to acknowledge that this anti-elitist trend did not emerge from nothing. ‘Experts’ as a group (if such a thing can be held to exist) have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the last few years, so the cynicism they now face is to some degree justifiable.

We need not get into the weeds here about the specific issues. But, suffice it to say, the complex manoeuvring of some extremely bright and learned people unwittingly triggered the financial crisis. Apocalyptic deadlines for climate change devastation came and went without fireworks. Election predictions on both sides of the Atlantic have been appalling, as have the predictions on the immediate consequences of those elections. Silicon Valley ‘geniuses’ plunge from one self- inflicted crisis to another. And, meanwhile, we have watched as what many people consider lunacy leaks out of the credentialed halls of academia and into the world at large.

In other words, smart people keep getting it wrong and scepticism about their competence has grown as a result. This seems to be a fairly straightforward story at first glance, and yet the public will only take their antipathy so far. Nobody says, “I want someone unqualified to be my president, therefore I also want someone unqualified to be my surgeon.” Nobody doubts the value of the expertise of an engineer or a pilot. This apparent inconsistency is what frustrates the anti-anti-elitists so much, not least because it seems to be unjustifiable.

However, it is worth drawing a distinction between these two types of expertise—the kind people question, and the kind people don’t. In short, people value expertise in closed systems, but are distrustful of expertise in open systems. A typical example of a closed system would be a car engine or a knee joint. These are semi-complex systems with ‘walls’—that is to say, they are self-contained and are relatively incubated from the chaos of the outside world. As such, human beings are generally capable of wrapping their heads around the possible variables within them, and can therefore control them to a largely predictable degree. Engineers, surgeons, pilots, all these kinds of ‘trusted’ experts operate in closed systems.

Open systems, on the other hand, are those that are ‘exposed to the elements,’ so to speak. They have no walls and are therefore essentially chaotic, with far more variables than any person could ever hope to grasp. The economy is an open system. So is climate. So are politics. No matter how much you know about these things, there is not only always more to know, but there is also an utterly unpredictable slide towards chaos as these things interact.

The erosion of trust in expertise has arisen exclusively from experts in open systems mistakenly believing that they know enough to either predict those systems or—worse—control them. This is an almost perfect definition of hubris, an idea as old as consciousness itself. Man cannot control nature, and open systems are by definition natural systems. No master of open systems has ever succeeded—they have only failed less catastrophically than their counterparts.

Every king, queen, pharaoh, emperor, president, prime minister, and dictator-for-life in history has tried to master statecraft, and every one of them has failed. If they had not, their formula would have calcified into knowledge and rumbled on successfully indefinitely. And wasn’t such a legacy the goal of every single one of them? The better ones only failed more gradually, less bloodily, than the rest. But slowly their ideas, too, unravelled in the face of chaos. Ultimately, history has shown this to be axiomatic: the more you seek to control nature, to control an open system, the more disastrous the results.

Knowing this, it’s a wonder that humility in the face of open systems is still such a rare commodity amongst those who know them. Perhaps it’s because the Enlightenment granted us so much mastery over closed systems that we forgot the distinction existed. One could argue that we have earned our arrogance when it comes to technological progress, for instance. But just because we invented smartphones, it does not follow that we can predict the future.

So what are we to do? The anti-elitist solution is to simply disregard the opinions of any expert in an open system. Given that accurate prediction or control are impossible, we might as well rely upon the layman’s word as on any other. Who cares what the so-called experts say? This would be the wrong conclusion to draw. Laymen can have big opinions too, which are likely to be even more erratic.

Instead, we must continually encourage the interplay of diverse expert voices to help ease us into the future gradually, without any one of them gaining absolute authority. This variety is important, since all open systems, being fundamentally unknowable, are governed by competing theories as to how they work. There are no competing theories for being an auto-mechanic, or for flying an aeroplane. There is just one way to do those things.

But when it comes to open systems, multiple interpretations apply. In economics, for instance, you have Marxists, Keynsians, Hayekians, and so on. All are ‘experts,’ and yet they may hold completely opposing views on any given topic of economic debate. It is only the interplay of such opposing views, stretched over time, that mitigates the chaos of the open system. It enables society to be agile and reactive. It prevents us from ever trying to sculpt the future, and thereby fends off the disasters that inevitably occur if only one voice is allowed to become hegemonic. It is this that has shaped the society in which we live today—nobody designed it; we merely stumbled here in the dark, getting this far by avoiding terminal catastrophe with a combination of deliberation and good fortune.

Herein lies the beauty of democracy, and indeed all bipolar, yin-and-yang systems. Democracy doesn’t work because it gives people what they want—it works because it gives nobody what they want. And, as a result, nobody is ever able to fall victim to their belief that they control open systems. The troubles of experts in recent times can be interpreted as a continuation of this balancing act—provided that they are not usurped altogether.

For expertise to function properly and flourish it needs to be bound in the following three ways:

First, an expert or observer must always consider whether the recommendations pertain to an open or closed system. This line won’t always be perfectly drawn (medicine is a good example of a semi-open system), but it can be approximated. This will determine the appropriate level of scepticism.

Second, experts who realise they are operating in open systems must be vigilant to adopt a certain level of humility. No grand theory works; it only fails less spectacularly. This should hedge predictions being made in unhelpfully absolutist terms.

And third, we should always encourage the interplay between diverse viewpoints in open systems—for only such an interplay can pull us back from the inevitable excesses of hubris, that attract us like moths to a flame.


Alex Smith is a strategist specialising in the underlying nature of complex systems and companies.  He is founder of Basic Arts and you can follow him on Twitter @smithesq


  1. yandoodan says

    It’s actually worse than this.

    No one can evaluate an expert’s ability to make judgements in a field other than another expert in the same field, much less decide on what the information means and how it applies. This applies in closed systems as well as open; think about how hard it is to choose an auto mechanic or a plastic surgeon. It’s certainly true for the expert information we need in open systems, such as information for policy decisions. But we are going to make these decisions anyway, as there is no way to avoid it. If you refuse to make a decision, you have decided in favor of the status quo.

    So, how are you going to get the information you need to make your decision? You read it somewhere or another, on the web or something. It’ll be written by a journalist, or a PR flack, or an organization with an ax to grind. (Or all three at once, a trifecta.) Being conscientious you go to the neutral source, the journalist. Problem: none of them is neutral (like the rest of us), and nearly all of them are duller, dumber, and less educated than you and me. More bad news: the journalists are not only biased dullards, they are getting nearly all of their copy from those press releases. Which they pick with the care and forethought of biased dullards who have to produce four articles a day.

  2. I’m grateful for this interesting piece on an important subject (as well as for the preceding one on a similar topic). I think you’re right that there are limits to expertise. But I’m not sure if I’d place those limits at the barrier to ‘open systems,’ as you do; though it’s true that prediction in complex fields can be hazardous, scientists do sometimes succeed in formulating hypotheses with considerable predictive power even in these areas. I think the real limits to expertise are to be found where empirical concerns pass into normative ones; in other words, where questions about what is the case cede to questions of what ought to be done. I had no problem with economists offering predictions about Brexit, but I did object to the idea that the decision was reducible to a technical argument about economics. That’s because political questions are fundamentally normative, not technical or empirical; and when it comes to questions of what we ought to do as a community we’re all equally expert. (I’ve written up a longer form of this argument here:

    • Peter Kriens says

      @James Kierstead: I missed the same point that many political decision require a moral judgement, not a technical expertise. I enjoyed reading your article about the mythical background where all men (including women) are born with a conscience and a sense of justice.

      However, there is one aspect that I missed in your and this article. I do not think democracy is about making the _best_ decisions, it is actually pretty bad at that. However, it is really good at sending away the elected that make _bad_ decisions. For that role, no skills are required and removing them from the pool would remove a very important signal.

      • James Kierstead says

        Thanks, Peter. You have an ancient ally for your view in Athenagoras of Syracuse, who argued, according to Thucydides (6.39) that though the intelligent are best at giving advice, the mass of people are best at judging it, and deciding whether to act on it or not.

  3. Nicholas Conrad says

    Hmm, it’s an interesting piece, but I don’t think your open/closed dichotomy captures the state of the world very well. People trust their doctor or mechanic because they chose a doctor or mechanic that they trust, but very well may see another healer (of cars or men) as an utter quack. What makes open system experts particularly vulnerable to criticism is their prognostications are made publicly. Even here, people who extol the expert consensus on climate change as sufficient evidence to enact their preferred environmental policies without delay, will likely not feel that the expert consensus, for instance that the corporate tax rate should approach 0 is sufficient to justify immediate implementation of a policy they disagree with.

  4. Vince says

    What you are suggesting is already implemented. Nobody in any field, scientific, economic orpolitical only takes the expertise of one person without consideration for other opposing ideas. Peer review in science, political debate in politics etc. Ideas are always widely debated in the political, scientific and even cultural sphere. I don’t know of any system except in a Marxist closed economy that only one ‘king’s’ expertise is taken as gospel. I feel as though this article is well written but unnecessary.

    • stephen buhner says

      regrettably, your perspective here is terribly inaccurate. In theory it is an accurate description but in reality it is not. The debates within the scientific community, for instance, occur within disciplines not across them which is a major part of the problems in science. ALL scientists are working with open systems but nearly all of them treat their field as a closed system in which control is possible. Peer review, like any human system, can be gamed and deep analysis has shown that it is being gamed, often at very high levels. Data that conflicts with accepted assumptions about the nature of Nature are vigorously opposed and the proponents of such data sometimes have their careers destroyed. It is not a value free occupation. And in many fields there are in fact “kings” whose expertise is taken as gospel and who do indeed control what occurs in that field, often for their lifetime. That scientists presumptions about their field are eventually, usually, corrected does not reduce the problems that their errors cause before they are. part of the growing discomfort with experts is precisely what i have outlined here. Within the scientific community many of its practitioners insist they possess the truth about nature and attack outside perspectives (using a variety of techniques to do so). Those “truths” are foisted upon culture and years or decades or centuries later are found to be the source of great damage, culturally, ecologically.

    • BillyJoe says

      You hit the nail on the head.

      Firstly, the closed/open dichotomy is a bad discription. The difference is best captured by a spectrum (which is changing all the time) ranging from non-controversial to controversial. On non-controversial topics, there is a consensus of experts, and you’d be a fool to ignore that consensus. On the other extreme you have controversial topics – which are controversial because the experts don’t agree and so there is no consensus. Here you would be a fool to take a position for or against as opposed to withholding judgement until an expert consensus is developed as more evidence comes to hand. In between it is a judgement call based on plausibility and the balance of probabilities. This cannot be avoided.

      In no cases do you actually listen to a lone expert. That is the fallacy of “Appeal to Authority” – which is appealing to an authority either speaking outside their area of expertise; or speaking in their area of expertise but putting their own idiosyncratic view instead of the consensus view of experts in that field.

      So, yes, the solution is already to hand. It’s just not always put into action. That should have been the point of this article.

  5. Graham Mitchell says

    This wonderful insight by Alex Smith brought back some memories of my studies of Thermodynamics at Aberdeen University.

    “Closed Systems” were used to explain complex problems by reducing the equations to something you might have a hope of understanding. This has always bugged me. How can you understand anything completely through “fake” constructs?

    I can now understand the expression “living in a bubble!”

  6. AC Harper says

    The distrust of experts may be more prevalent because society (in the broadest sense) is now polarizing opinions. ‘Practising humility’ will not get public exposure, but that exposure requires ‘impact’ not ‘more research is needed’.

    Open systems suffer more from polarization of reporting (and debate) because people have come to be suspicious of competing black and white views. If the experts can’t agree why should we accord their opinions any special status?

  7. Emmanuel says

    The biggest problem with the notion of expertise is not wether or not we need experts but rather how to identify them, while remembering that expertise in a very narrow and specific field does not imply expertise in any other field and that institutional support and legitimacy granted to an expert is not necessarly justified.

    • Mark says

      The media loves doing this. They had the late Stephan Hawking, a Cosmologist, commenting on all sorts of political issues.

    • Charles White says

      Excellent point Emmanuel and great example Mark.

      To add, another problem is the number of self proclaimed experts with no other reason for being an expert beyond their proclamation. This is particularly true of ‘celebrities’. Example being di Caprio claimed an Alberta chinook to be proof of global warming. Second example is David Suzuki, who because he is science trained believes himself to be an expert in all things.

  8. David Norman says

    The article gets off to a poor start by misquoting Michael Gove. The essence of what he actually said is that ‘the public had had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms getting things consistently wrong’. It is clear that he was attacking the prognostications of particular organisations about Brexit that had a less than stellar record on other matters and was not attacking experts as a class at all.

    Unfortunately the myth of his words has overtaken the reality but two minutes of internet research would have shown Alex Smith his mistake.

  9. Urusigh says

    Perhaps this is a deliberate editorial choice to simplify the matter, but I think this article misses some of the main factors undercutting trust in “expertise” and therefore the proposed solutions do little to directly address them.

    First, all claims of scientific/technical expertise are theoretically empirical, but the “professionals” in open systems have not been treated that way. When a doctor makes a mistake, there is an autopsy to identify the error and malpractice lawsuits to punish avoidable errors. That process of self-policing and external corrections promote accountability. In those fields that are currently experiencing high public skepticism, there’s been many errors but little in the way of identifying the cause, accepting responsibility, or suffering external correction for failure to do so. The financial wizards who crashed the world economy were bailed out, the foreign policy hacks who gave us the migratory crisis are still at it, the climate alarmists continue to get massive funding for demonstrably incorrect models, and the list goes on. There’s a distinction between distrust in expertise and between distrust in particular “experts” who overpromised and underdelivered, but only when there are other experts getting it right to compare against.

    Second, to echo the Marxism/pomo-type argument regarding power and the tendency of groups to promote their own in-group interests in a zero sum fashion, the ever-increasing extent to which “experts” constitute a distinct, homogenous group on social cultural political economic and even geographic lines rationally undermines any trust that they are truly working towards the public good as defined by the public, rather than their own in-group good or in-group definition of “The Public Good”. Thus we see many accusations of opponents being “anti-science” even when the point of dispute is primarily on non-technical matters such as which trade-offs are acceptable in determining public policy. This becomes even more relevant as more schools and “experts” embrace “social justice” as an overriding goal. Impartial scientists are trusted to assist politicians in implementing the will of the public, Activists scientists implicitly attempt to replace politicians and overrule the will of the people. Why would any rational voter trust someone who neither shares their interests or their aims to make their choices for them? When they cross the line from advising “how” things may be achieved to “what” things ought to be achieved, they exit their proper domain and their opinions and preferences are no more valid than that of any other citizen.

  10. Craig Wright says

    I agree with the comment above that the start of this article is very disappointing. While many who are intent on delegitimising the Brexit vote have intentionally misrepresented Gove’s point by quoting just the start of his sentence, no doubt others just repeat what they’ve heard unquestioningly because it fits with their preconceptions. Alex Smith is presumably the latter as is evidenced by the fact that he hasn’t even got the start of the sentence right so is unlikely to be familiar with the actual quote. However, it is a shame that time wasn’t taken to fact-check this prevalent myth before perpetuating it.

  11. Caligula says

    In addition, expertise may be impaired by conflicts of interest. A barber may be an expert in styling hair, but it’s still inadvisable to take the barber’s word for it that it’s time for you to get a haircut. Professionalism can mitigate this, but will never totally eliminate it.

    But even outside obvious economic conflicts of interest, there is an inevitable tendency for experts, and the groups that represent them, to minimize limits on the present state of the art and thus project an image of the field that presumes more competence than it actually posesses.

  12. stephen buhner says

    Alex: I like much of your article but have to disagree with your comments re medicine. medicine is a completely open system, not partially open and replacing a knee joint, which appears closed, is not. Situating it next to a car mechanic working on a car continues the mistaken assumption that the body is a mechanical organism that can through disassembly can be understood, that parts can be replaced, like part of a car. The reductive medicalists and the medical/pharmaceutical industry have done a lot to promote this perspective. If your chemistry is out of balance, then take this. If your knee or heart or lungs are not working well, replace them.

    Viewed through a short term lens, this appears sensible but it is not. The human body is in fact an open, nonlinear, complex ecological entity that self-organizes as it comes into form. Viewing it as a mechanical organism has the same long term problems as viewing the world as a collection of mechanical bits which can be meddled with however humans wish.

    The rise of resistant bacteria is only one of the many serious outcomes that this attitude has created. Extending the view outside the human reveals that medicine, as it is now, is in fact a major factor in the destabilization of the ecological systems of the planet. The literally trillions of tons of pharmaceuticals that go into the environment on a regular basis are destabilizing every life form on this planet, from bacteria to plants to larger animal species.

    This macroscopic view applies equally well to the micro. The apparently closed ecological system of the human body (which is in fact open) experiences extreme disruption, very similar to the macro system, when treated as closed. A great many of the physical problems that people experience are in fact the result of medical interventions. While this may seem an extreme statement to some, this perspective is easily found in hundreds of peer review, open access journals easily found on sites such as pubmed.

    The discomfort with experts, and i do like how you parsed it very much, is indeed partly coming from a continued experience of the hubris that flows through expertworld. There is an extreme discomfort in that world about hearing any challenge to the systems in which they are embedded. But there is also a general sense, based on experience, that the pictures of the world that experts routinely assert to be accurate are in fact not accurate. And medicine is a major example of that.

    You make a good point that there needs to be competing theoretical structures in order for effective outcomes. In fact, with any field, every researcher should in fact be trained in at least three competing mental approaches to their work to that they can check what they do against the assumptions in any one of them. Two systems will work but that easily leads to a binary orientation which the world is not. The interesting things about three systems is that it also reduces the problems inherent in binary thinking.

    From over 40 years of experience it is clear that scientists have little interest in humility, it is antithetical to their very existence, as it is now constructed. There are some of course, who know so much that they know how little they know as well as those who have had the savage experience of the world around them humbling them in their arrogance. But that does not apply to the majority of scientists or doctors.

    The medical industry and its practitioners, despite their assertions, are not interested primarily in healing, they are interested in money and power. (Nor do they have much interest in science except as it provides them avenues for more money.) There is no competing system to force them to re-evaluate their positions; they are in fact a cartel that prohibits the rise of any competing system. And their PR has been sophisticated enough to convince the majority of people that there IS not competing system.

    So, James Kierstead is correct in stating that much of the difficulty is a normative one. Human beings are human beings, no matter their credentialing. And the problems inherent in human beings are always present, fear of loss of money, power, security, reputation as well as the desire for those things. Science and medicine are not objective pursuits and they never will be.

    I deeply believe in the democratic process no matter how messy it can become, especially in times such as ours. Scientists and physicians are part of the collective body and it is time that they open to the fact that the majority of people have some thoughts on what they have done and do.

  13. Harry Wallace says

    Open v closed terminology is an interesting way to frame an issue quite familiar to practitioners of probabilistic science, but argument blatantly ignores an alternative possibility that erosion of trust of experts in open systems stems not from expert hubris, but rather from the ability of people to discount and attack authentic expertise by framing examples of imperfect mastery as evidence that expertise is invalid or impossible to attain.

    Transparency of one-sided nature of argument is revealed by use of the word “exclusively” in the above quote…expert hubris indeed!

    “The erosion of trust in expertise has arisen exclusively from experts in open systems mistakenly believing that they know enough to either predict those systems or—worse—control them. This is an almost perfect definition of hubris, an idea as old as consciousness itself.”

  14. Sam Hall says

    It turns out that people are smart enough to understand that expertise exists within narrow limits, and that an expert becomes just another opinion when the topic drifts outside their area of expertise. If a pilot or an engineer were being regularly quoted about politics in the NYT, they’d get the same reaction that Paul Krugman, an economist, does when is regularly quoted on politics. But unlike Nobel-winning economists, pilots and engineers don’t tend to travel in powerful circles, and thus don’t get invited to put their name behind the approved opinions on the op-ed page.

  15. defmn says

    As others have already pointed out there are both interesting and questionable ideas in this essay.

    //No grand theory works; it only fails less spectacularly.//

    An interesting theory to propose for an essay on the limitations of grand theories. 😉

    //Democracy doesn’t work because it gives people what they want—it works because it gives nobody what they want.//

    I have no idea what this sentence is supposed to mean. My guess is that that is because it is more useful as a slogan than as a serious thought.

    To the extent that democracy can be said “to work” it is because its virtues of freedom and equality describe relationships between people as opposed to other regimes which are focused on particular human attributes such as lineage or money or courage etc..

    As such it is the regime that allows the largest number of its citizens to rise or fall according to their own natures. That is why democracy ‘works’ for some people and not for others.

  16. Morgan says

    The problem is that experts are political too. Who determines what a qualified opinion actually is? It’s the experts. The problem is that when you give experts power they tend to surround themselves with experts who exclusively agree with their particular opinion, just like any other political group. You have lots of experts in academia, but they cut out any of the experts who disagree with their particular conclusions.

    Your comments regarding nature however, are such a comically liberal point of view. We can and have been controlling nature. Civilization is the collective effort to control nature. The goal of humanity should always be to control nature. We should, of course, do it without hubris, and without falling into the certainty of our own theories without experimentation. Liberalism parasitizes off the old social stability like oil industry drains power from the dead bodies of ancient animals, and so its instinct is always to reduce us to an unstable state by making claims equivalent to “we can’t ever control nature, so let’s just be animals with big tools”. Sorry, but that way leads Gehenna, metaphorically speaking. By eating stability, liberalism tries to create intellectual energy. That works for a while, but it’s ultimately unsustainable.

  17. First lets dispense with the straw men. I don’t know anybody that says lets not listen to experts any more. Populism has almost nothing to do with the rejection of expert opinions. Almost all of this current backlash against experts is in very narrow areas mainly climate science (world is dieing tommorrow unless we act by taxing people and jacking up energy prices by using uncompetitve green energy), immigration (the more then better every immigrant is valuable and are economic dynamos with no downside), and gender identity (people are born with a different gender then there birth sex often and its immutable except when we say it isn’t!). A close look at any of these subjects shows very little science or facts backing up the majority expert opinion in these areas but penty of politics and educated guesses. I am skeptical about basically every thing in life that has not been 100% proven through the scientific method. Most open systems cannot be explained with the accuracy these egg heads think they can be so it is completely rational to be skeptical.

  18. Athanasius Gabardinus says

    Hmmm, how can an article be written on this topic without mentioning Nassim Nicholas Taleb?

  19. TarsTarkas says

    The problem is not experts per se but so-called experts fond of telling other what they ought to do and how but not why or or who lie about why, and the resultant ‘shut up and obey or else’ attitude convinces no one except those who enjoy implementing the coercive alternative.

  20. derek says

    The problem isn’t a disregard for experts, it is that the ‘experts’ aren’t experts.

    I know experts and they are rare, in demand, and a problem that multiple levels of government and bureaucracy acedemia and business are trying to solve. Solve in the sense of having them out of their hair.

    Experts are people who excel in demanding fields where there are hard feedback and accountability mechanisms.

    Credentials don’t represent expertise.

  21. Mike Smiddy says

    This author is the very idiot he laments about. His comments on economics are so wrong its tragic.

  22. NickG says

    The erosion of trust in expertise has arisen exclusively from experts in open systems mistakenly believing that they know enough to either predict those systems or—worse—control them.

    The erosion of trust is because these ‘experts’ are just not effing experts, they are narrative punting or self interested advocates.

    There is also the problem of lack of skin in the game, which this article should have at least touched on.

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  25. stevengregg says

    One problem with experts is that so very often they are offering sophist arguments for their unfounded opinions. Many professors earn a PhD to prove an irrational view they acquired as a sophomore. They assumed a conclusion and spend the rest of their lives searching for the proof of it, the opposite of how knowledge should be pursued.

    Another problem is applying expertise in a closed system to an open system. For example, Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara was one of the Whiz Kids, a brilliant practitioner of operations research which reduced business management to statistics and algorithms. That worked well in Ford’s auto factories, which were closed systems, but when he applied it to the Vietnam War, an open system, it was a disaster. He did not know what he did not know.

    Yet another problem with experts is their character. If you are dishonest, then all your expertise is for naught. For example, Professor Jonathan Gruber admitted that he lied to sell ObamaCare to the American people, counting on people being too economically illiterate to catch on. So, his approach was to baffle Americans with BS. Liberals try to sell all manner of nonsense by fallacious appeals to authority, rather than presenting their argument.

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  27. Andrija Stupar says

    Mr. Smith has correctly that there are two types of experts: groups in which we can expect “experts” to be really experts most of the time (car mechanics, dentists, plumbers, and so on) and groups in which “experts” are more often than not, not really experts (economists, social scientists, think-tank types, foreign policy gurus and the like). What I mean here when I say that someone is really an expert is that he actually has the knowledge and skills to successfully solve a problem in a given field.

    However, the reason for this is not the dichotomy of open and closed systems. It’s because of the existence and lack of feedback. Read the works of Nassim Taleb. The layman cannot judge the specifics of a highly specialized expert’s knowledge but can rate the outcome of the application of that expertise. I may not be able to determine who knows more about mufflers by talking to two mechanics, but I can easily determine who has managed to fix my car and who has not. Real experts arise in fields in which the practicioners suffer the consequences of their actions. A terrible car mechanic will lose customers and have to close up shop. It has nothing to do with the system being open or closed. “Fake” experts show up in fields where there is no such feedback. Have economics professors been fired, jailed, or had their property confiscated for advocating economic policies which ended up being disastrous?

    This problem (of no feedback, or no “skin in the game”) can arise in open and closed systems. Witness the poor state of the health systems in many countries where there is no accountability effectively for the doctors (no real consequences for malpractice). You’ll find that in such places, doctors are not held in particularly high esteem and that their expertise is questioned.

    Politics is the worst of it: once upon time, there was a crude but effective way to get rid of poor leaders: a terrible king, say, would end up on the pitchforks of angry peasants. Granted, this became less effective when kings started focusing on repressing dissent more than on good governance (which eventually boiled over long-term and more or less ended absolute monarchy as a thing in the West). Today, we think we have solved political responsibility by having elections: however, there is a lot you can do to screw up a country (society, city, province, region) completely legally, and the only reprimand you get in that case is being denied re-elections (or, if you’ve hit your term limit, not even that – you just retire quietly). There is no mechanism to punish politicians for bad decisions – I mean really like punish them: like, you bankrupted the country, now we are going to take all of your property away. Politicains themselves aren’t the worst though: the worst are the various policy “experts” and lobbyists which whisper in the politicians’ ears (or even just yell at them) and persuade them to do this or that, but suffer almost no consequences whatsoever (since they are not even standing for election). Worse still, they somehow retain their expert aura and keep on giving advice. You know like the people who advocated for war with Iraq or Libya? They should shut up and never be heard of again. Yet they still show up and tout their “wisdom”. The media, for some reason, still promote their opinions. Is it a wonder some people are “sick of experts”?

  28. Greg says

    Where experts fail, regardless of open/closed system focus, is when they start to think too highly of their expertise. A little humility might have saved us from this situation. And the more open the system under study, the more humility is needed. The greatest experts in any field should be the ones who understand best just how little they, and thus “we”, know.

    This should be their lesson to others: we have more questions than answers, the answers we do have are not satisfying, yet we can do useful things, but given our vast ignorance, we should be careful in applying the little knowledge we think we have.

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  36. araybold says

    It is wrong to write that “apocalyptic deadlines for climate change devastation came and went without fireworks” as the predicted consequences are mostly in the future (which is actually one reason the expertise is easily dismissed.) Climate science differs from economics in a couple of ways: a) it speaks with essentially one voice, not as two factions that are diametrically opposed on fundamentals and blame the other’s principles for every problem; b) it hasn’t been repeatedly blindsided by events that nominally lie within its area of expertise, as demonstrated by the ability to explain exactly how the other side caused them (after the event, of course.)

  37. Excellent comments; a consequence of an excellent article. There are two threads in the comments that resonate with me; that expertise in open systems is difficult to assess, and that experts whose advice doesn’t pan out should suffer consequences. Some of the commenters have proposed things like ‘skin in the game’ but I think a more comprehensive solution is possible. To get the ball rolling, I like the idea of experts in open systems have a public ‘credibility index’ associated with their statements. As it is now, I don’t have the time to track the accuracy of the various pundits who pronounce on things important to me, but I would certainly reference a credibility index if it was available (and credible :-)).

  38. Peter says

    »Apocalyptic deadlines for climate change devastation came and went without fireworks.” I challenge Alex Smith to provide just two examples of such passed deadlines.

    My mathematical friend teaches statistics. He does not advocate. But looking with his students at 30 years of climate data and the trend they show he became convinced that something was going on. He is an expert and knows there are no deadlines; just trends, that in decades can add to an enormous amount of damage. One exceptionally cold winter, while impressing a layman, will not have a big influence to a thirty year statistic.

    The excellent book The Puritan Gift tells us that one shortcoming of the otherwise enormously successful puritan-based colonization of North America was (and still seems to be) its total disregard for Nature.

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