“Experts say …” and “experts agree …” preface so much of what we read and hear today. It has become almost a warning label that flags agenda-driven opinion. It is intended to assure the reader or listener that what is being presented is approved and supported by folks who really know what’s going on in the particular subject area. Sets off every BS alarm for me.
The wisdom of crowds, as delivered via polls of every flavor, is right up there (or down there) with the experts. Polls are supposed to be magically truthful and wise despite overwhelming evidence that they are mostly or completely opinions. Opinions of folks who may know very little about the subject but are very happy to opine nonetheless. Polls also have become a signal that an agenda, not expertise, is being presented.
Experts and their “expertise” are problematic
Margaret McCarthy in medical journal BMJ (2014) tells it like it seems to be:
“Expertise is a paradox. When experts summit, expertise plummets. With pomp at the podium and arrogance ad nauseam, experts posture at rostrums and lecture at lecterns about nonsense and nostrums that make us dumb and keep us mum. So let’s seek more education via simplification and clarification, not self-glorification. Let’s avoid experts who are smitten with their smarts, and have expertosis, diplomatosis, academic neurosis, and apotheosis.”
Dr. Richard Kunin in 2010 made the same point in connection with medical care:
” Expertosis: Diseases Caused By Government Experts … Something clicked in my mind this week, an insight that I have resisted for many years. There is a bit of the contrarian in me, I must admit; but I do hold back, I fight the urge to find fault. I do respect authority and I dread anarchy. But I don’t believe in blind obedience in politics–and certainly not in questions of science.”
Polls rarely generate wisdom of any kind
Polls are notorious unreliable as predictors of much of anything. Especially in politics. These are offered as the wisdom of crowds but the wisdom part is nearly always missing. Or it is replaced by opinion and bias.
Wikipedia describes polls as:
“An opinion poll, often simply referred to as a poll or a survey, is a human research survey of public opinion from a particular sample. Opinion polls are usually designed to represent the opinions of a population by conducting a series of questions and then extrapolating generalities in ratio or within confidence intervals.”
The problem here is that opinion is not always what is being sought but instead prediction. Asking “Who do you think will win?” is not a request for an opinion but for a prediction. Asking “Do you think that Ms. XYZ is a stronger candidate for whatever than Mr. ABC?” is a request for an opinion. Note that expertise is not required or expected in either case.
An exit poll question asking who you just voted for is going to generate, at least in principle, some solid information. Not an opinion. Not an expert view. Just a survey of what some folks themselves actually did. Real data about reality.
Experts may not be
So much is presented these days as being the wisdom of an “expert” of some kind in order that whatever is being stated becomes much more credible. The “expert” however may be expert in an unrelated field of knowledge, which is rarely noted. The expert here is stating opinion in reality.
Or, probably worse, the “expert” may have a strong agenda for personal or commercial reasons. This essential background is hardly ever provided. If it gets out, the outing source is probably an opponent or perhaps a competing “expert”.
True expertise is usually presented via a fairly detailed resume or CV that supports the claim of expertise. But even this does not provide evidence of impartiality or indicate that the expert has an agenda of some sort.
Why does this matter so much today?
Searching “experts say” on Google just generated over a billion results. That’s evidence of either way too many experts or fewer “experts’ who say way too much. This is truly scary.
We unfortunately have to depend on “experts” for a great deal of information because the world today is much too complex for most of us, myself included, to understand. Physicist Albert Einstein who was a universally recognized expert on many aspects of physics had a serious problem with quantum mechanics:
“Quantum mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One. I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.”
Einstein was certainly an expert on quantum mechanics but here he expresses a personal opinion “inner voice” that says quantum mechanics is (not yet) real. Nice of him to include the “inner voice” qualifier to flag this as an opinion. So few true “experts” are so forthcoming.
Experts may not be the problem but the sources are
Expertise from experts, as well as real data from polls and crowds, is essential in many instances today. We are forced to depend on them for so much as we struggle daily to deal with an increasingly incomprehensible world. Like it or not, input from experts cannot be avoided.
The problem I think is that much of what we are hearing or reading comes from a non-expert source. Maybe even an agenda-driven source, if you can imagine such a horrible thing. Agenda-driven sources typically generate propaganda rather than accurately describing reality.
We are greatly blessed to have available, at least for the moment, a still-open internet for communications. Certain blocks of media sources are clearly managed for various unstated purposes but independent, often even impartial, voices can still be heard.
If you are managing a business, you are relying on at least a few expert and crowd-wise sources. Can’t help but be today. The challenge is separating the real, relevant experts and poll data sources from those that are not reliable or relevant.
A source may quote a true expert in a context where the expertise is simply not relevant. The expert is real and telling the story truthfully but the source is presenting this reality to us in an unreal context. Deception, I think they call it. Perhaps inadvertent but mostly not.
Source credibility seems to be the key to getting at reality
“Consider the source” (not the fusion band) is an old saying that qualifies any statement by its source credibility. The statement’s originator must of course be credible as a prerequisite for being taken seriously but this source when combined with the presenting source may or may not be credible.
Everyone has a right to an opinion or to claim being an “expert” (in some context) but no one has the right to have this taken seriously. In the absence of an intermediary source involvement, the statement or opinion may have “acceptable” credibility. It is, for example, usually necessary for the originating source to understand the context that the statement is about. However, even this is typically quite hard to determine.
If your originating source has sufficient credibility to gain your trust, then the usefulness of whatever is being presented depends on the credibility or lack thereof of the presenting intermediary source, if any.
Trust is what drives credibility
Someone is credible – to you at least – if you trust them. Trust is generated by experience with the source where most of what the source says or does turns out to be reliable. Trust does not just happen but is gained, mostly the hard way, over a period of time. Trust can be lost almost instantly on the other hand by a major failure or betrayal.
Trust can be derived from trusted sources associated with the one you are evaluating. A doctor from the Mayo Clinic whom you have never met may be at least provisionally trusted by this kind of association. This is an extremely common trust source – trust by association.
That often works well enough to make your source initially credible but it may often be smart to get some performance confirmation thereafter. The key is to make sure that the credibility starting point is reinforced by the source’s actual performance in your context.
So where can we find reality?
Reality is typically well-hidden. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to get firsthand a clear picture of reality in our context of interest. Hopefully, this reality will be a happy one. Otherwise, it is a case of learning about reality the hard way. Often painfully.
For truly complex topics, reality can only be obtained through the medium of an expert or crowd-wisdom. Reading, hearing, seeing – all provide you what the source or sources know, think, or opine. Reality may indeed be in there somewhere but how can you find and verify it?
Multiple sources: Probably the best way to get credible information is to obtain and evaluate several sources. These will differ in credibility but having two or more largely in agreement is often a good credibility builder. If these sources are all over the map, then you will need to look elsewhere.
Testing: You may have a situation that can be tested without great effort or cost. For example, shoppers today are said to just love delivery services. Lots of opinions, surveys, and thoughts are out there on this current topic. But do they really? If you are thinking about adding a delivery service to your product array, maybe you can set up a small-scale test and get customer feedback directly. Or you might arrange to work closely with a firm already delivering to get firsthand input from its customers.
Gut feel: Hate to get technical at this point but I have so often encountered solid insights from businesspeople that are based on something they call “gut feel”. Not knowledge but simply a sense that draws on experience, personal expertise, and situation knowledge.
Input from trusted associates: Another well-used approach is to get input on credibility from trusted associates. Employees, friends, other contacts.
Or maybe reality simply doesn’t exist, as the MIT Technology Review claims to demonstrate (see Related Reading below).
We all require expert input on many topics that are complex or outside of our personal resources. Much of this input has to come from both originating sources and any intermediary involved. Establishing source credibility is critical but not always easy. Source credibility assessment should always be part of your data set for any important uses.
Consider the Source is a short piece I stumbled across recently that has some serious wisdom via quotes mixed with humor:
“Consider the Source means — only take opinions seriously that are informed. Uninformed opinions are only statements about the psychological state of the opinion holder — which may be important in some contexts.— Ray Schneider
“Especially beware when a person who is expert in one domain holds forth on another domain in which he or she is not an expert.”— Dave Harris
James Broderick and Darren Miller in their now quite dated (2007) book “Consider the Source”:
“Jim Broderick and Darren Miller have written an A-to-Z guide to the best and worst news and information sites, featuring 100 in-depth, critical reviews and a 5-star rating system. You’ll discover dozens of reliable sites that meet your needs, learn what to expect before you log on, and gain a reporter’s hard-nosed perspective on the motives and bias behind each resource. The supporting Web site is a virtual portal to the world of online news.”
Brookings has a very thoughtful piece on political polling: “Polling & Public Opinion: The good, the bad, and the ugly”:
“People of all kinds, activists and ordinary citizens alike, regularly cite polls, especially those that find them in the majority. But people are deeply skeptical of polls, especially when opinion moves in the “wrong” direction. Some of their doubts are about pollsters’ methods. Do they ask the right questions? Are they manipulating the wording of questions to get the responses they want? And whom did they interview? Some of the doubts are wrapped up in a mistrust of the political parties, marketers, and media giants that pay for the polls.”
MIT Technology Review really messes with your head: “A quantum experiment suggests there’s no such thing as objective reality”:
“The idea that observers can ultimately reconcile their measurements of some kind of fundamental reality is based on several assumptions. The first is that universal facts actually exist and that observers can agree on them. But there are other assumptions too. One is that observers have the freedom to make whatever observations they want. And another is that the choices one observer makes do not influence the choices other observers make—an assumption that physicists call locality.”