Expert Tease

Here’s a book I need to read.

The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses – the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

Other studies have confirmed the general sense that expertise is overrated. In one experiment, clinical psychologists did no better than their secretaries in their diagnoses. In another, a white rat in a maze repeatedly beat groups of Yale undergraduates in understanding the optimal way to get food dropped in the maze. The students overanalyzed and saw patterns that didn’t exist, so they were beaten by the rodent. — Nicholas Kristof, in NY Times

Kristof cherry-picks a few of the more amusing incidents, like a fake professor who delivers a lecture to professional educators on “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education,” a deliberately pointless diatribe of claptrap.  Audience surveys rating the experience were overwhelmingly favorable.  The pedagogues were thoroughly impressed.

irwincoryThis is how the raging clods and oily-voiced oafs you hear on radio and see on teevee get away with it year after year.  The blowhards and buffoons who shape your opinions with their shrewd analyses of world affairs; the zealots who convince you to invest in miracle cures and believe in obscure conspiracy theories.  Ever ask yourself why you believe a word they say?  Ever analyze how much of what they spew, you internalize, and wonder why?

But even on a daily basis, you bump into these folks all the time.  You have them in your office or work crew.  You live next door to them.  They treat your health, your teeth, and they review your X-Rays.  They fix your car and serve you food.  They teach your children and lead your prayers.  You vote them into office.  You sit through their professional workshops and counseling sessions.  You read and believe their blogs.  And some of them have excellent credentials, awarded by experts just like them!

Hell — you might even be one yourself.

Dammit.  Not only do I need to read this book, I should have written it.

photo: Prof. Erwin Corey, professional bullshitter

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10 Responses to Expert Tease

  1. Frank of Oregon says:

    Yeah and what makes YOU the expert?

  2. Bernard Madoff says:

    In my experience, one always trusts the experts for the best results.

  3. Ms Calabaza says:

    I loved Prof. Corey!

  4. Fran G'Panni says:

    Luv it Luv it Luv it esp the shrinks doing no better than their secretaries. No surprise there!

  5. Old Timer says:

    I haven’t thought about Professor Erwin Corey in about 15 years. Too bad he’s not around any more: I bet his explanation of the economy would fit right in about now, and make about as much sense as anybody else.

  6. Chimpanzee says:

    Any experts in the house wanna throw some darts?

  7. Ortho Stice says:

    I worked for a company that never failed to distrust its own employees’ judgment, and instead brought in high-priced experts on everything from personnel, sales, technology, management, production, etc. When one dept manager was replaced with another, the new one would throw out everything, bring in new “experts,” and off we went again.

    I was there 10 years and endured 3 of these changeovers. None of the experts ever agreed with the one before, even when in one case, it was the same damn firm coming in again. None of the regular employees paid much attention to the so-called experts anyway.

    I discovered that this pretty much is the norm in corporate America. Nice to see some statistical back-up. Assuming this expert on experts is to be believed.

  8. NFK says:

    The fake professor giving the lecture on game theory story reminds me of the Sokal Hoax. Good times.

  9. Sharpo Marx says:

    Squathole,
    I always thought Professor Corey would make a great president. After all, if you really think about it, he is a professional bullshitter and the presidents are only amateurs at it.

  10. Squathole says:

    Old Timer: Prof Corey makes as much sense today as he did when he was alive. He’s just not as funny. However, he is consistent.

    NFK: I’d forgotten about the Sokal Hoax, but you’re exactly right, it was the same principle elevated (if that’s the word) to scholarly journals. Usually the obviously vapid is exercised in places media like teevee and tabloids, or best sellers like “How to Make a Million Dollars and Maintain an Erection in 30 Days.” Hmmm. Make that “FOR 30 Days.”

    Sharpo: You’re on to something, but I bet many people would resent characterizing their elected officials as amateur bullshitters. I mean, over the years, some of these guys set the standard, as well as the style!

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