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GP 21 December 2005: Why Experts Are Wrong!

Louis Menand.  We first encountered Louis Menand in his bestseller The Metaphysical Club, where, among other things, he tried to get a handle on the pragmatic movement, America’s one hugely original contribution to philosophy, and a line of thinking that served us well up to the early 1960s.  He fashions himself an “intellectual historian,” lives with his family in Manhattan, but has made the very grand mistake of taking up teaching duties at Harvard.

He has redeemed himself by becoming a frequent book reviewer for The New Yorker, where he provides the most literate thinking available in that publication.  We had missed his “Everybody’s An Expert,” but fortunately Squire Firehock of Staunton passed it along to us.  In passing, it’s a review of Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? You don’t have to read the book, but you should read Menand.  Tetlock, a Berkeley psychologist, examined 284 pundits and predictors over 20 years, and he found that the man of the street had a better sense of how things would turn out than all the political wise men.  One can make better guesses about political outcomes by taking tosses at a dartboard than listening to the profundities of that nattering pack of demi-thinkers we encounter on the cable channels.  A reading of the profound Menand gives one a quick course on how experts go astray.

Mr. Menand has made a mistake hanging out at Harvard, because you cannot turn a corner in Cambridge without running into another “expert.”  And the same psychological and epistemological problems that lead political experts to get it wrong also muddle the experts in the sciences, management consulting, education, and a host of other fields who line the banks of the Charles River.  It’s an easy place to catch a dose of cerebral lockjaw.  Time and time again, for instance, we discover that all the wizards who are telling us how the economy is doing are dead wrong, and that Average Joes can give us a better feel for what’s going on (or off) in the factories and the shopping malls.  (See “Early, Early Warning” in our Agile Companies.)  The experts all talk to each other, and they largely march in lockstep, only split hairs separating their opinions.

Groupthink is a very insidious disease, especially when you are dealing with experts.  Our favored story in this regard is about Kilmer McCully and homocysteine. Very early on at Harvard, no less, he began to suspect that homocysteine played a fundamental role in heart disease.  But cholesterol and the Framingham study was all the rage then, and the Harvard medical mafia had no room for a maverick thinker.  His funding was cut, and he went into exile at a Veterans hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.  Today, his reputation more than rehabilitated, he has connected up to Brown University and is out with a book called The Heart Revolution.

In this regard, he is not unlike Roger Williams, who centuries earlier did not cotton to Puritan Orthodoxy in Boston, and went off to found the religiously tolerant state of Rhode Island in 1636.  It is not clear that the city of experts has become notoriously more open-minded in modern times, and we still know of medical researchers who have had to flee the place.  Both Williams and McCully will be remembered longer than the breakfast table autocrats who expelled them.

The Simons Effect?  The wrongheadedness of experts is not a trivial matter.  As Menand says, several experts have a tendency to look for explanations for phenomena that amount to “a single bottom-line force,” one elegant idea that explains everything.  “Great scientists, for example, are often” in this camp.  “They value parsimony, the simpler solution over the more complex.”  “The upside” is that when they are right, they are often “spectacularly right.”  The downside, of course, is that they are often fatally wrong, retarding human progress or worse.

James H. Simons “runs Renaissance Technologies Corporation, one of the world’s most successful  hedge funds.”  (See A Hedge-Fund Titan’s Millions Stir Up Reseach into Autism,” Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2005, pp. A1 and A15.).  His daughter Audrey is afflicted with relatively mild autism, and he is generously  putting $100 million of his considerable fortune behind autism research.  He thinks of himself as a scientist, and, no surprise, is pursuing a single strand in the autism puzzle.  He is after “a genetically based explanation for the disease.”  He personally reviews all grant applications and has rounded up several Nobel scientists to look for the genes and combination of genes that lie behind the explosion of autism.  In other words, he obsessively pokes into all aspects of the research he funds and has reached a definitive conclusion about the right line of attack.

Even if he is on the right path, it’s worrisome.  It’s going to take quite a while to uncover the genes and decide what to do about them.  Meanwhile, other lines of inquiry might net some short term gains that would make a difference in people’s lives now.  Probably something environmental is afoot here.  And we are discovering that more and more substances found naturally in nature can make a difference in neurological disease, even if this healing knowledge is neither profitable nor thrilling for our pharmaceutical companies.  We are just at the very beginning of the autism mystery, so we should be pursuing all sorts of hunches. In our “All About Autism,” we explore further the potholes in autism research.

It’s not clear, in other words, that experts should run the world, because, curiously, they rule out the complex, in favor of one-way, my-way notions.  And they’re inclined to work with other experts who speak the same language.  The real world rarely has much to do with the way they look at things.  That’s why technocratic governments run by a collection of experts, usually put together by dictators or military leaders, rarely work out in the long term.

Advising Mr. Simons, Mr. Gates, and Several Others.  There are a host of wealthy, smart, even expert benefactors micromanaging areas they don’t understand with vast amounts of dough—from Mr. Simons in autism, to Mr. Gates in healthcare and Africa, to George Soros in Eastern Europe and American politics.  We’d think they need to get out of the way if they are going to do any good.  Novelist Paul Theroux in “The Rock Star’s Burden” (New York Times, December 15, 2005) humorously and sadly relates how Bono and Bill and a bunch of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are making a hash of Africa.  We’d hope there is some way to turn these lemons into lemonade.

It probably comes down to how these patrons of humanity go about recruiting their experts.  They need to find the right fellows to do the job and then give them a free hand.  In conjunction with some creative thinkers on the edge of the MIT community, we have been studying expert behavior for better than a decade.  We’ve learned for sure that you don’t hire a bunch of Nobel Prize winners if you want to go out and slay a dragon. Instead you look around the world for those very small communities (often it comes down to one town) where there is a specific pocket of expertise that might have something very pointed to do with your problem.  The doctors who found out what causes ulcers came not from these United States, but from Australia; curiously Australia produces some very good medical researchers in a number of areas.  The border between Russia and Poland has given birth to some of the world’s greatest piano talents.  And so it goes.  Look for the likely place where there is a bunch of people with some instinct for the riddle you are trying to solve.  Watson and Crick, the scientists who unravelled DNA, came from Cambridge University:  perhaps they know something about genes at that scientifically productive but oft under-funded university.  As we have said on Agile Companies, “Location Really Matters” when you want to get something exceptional done.

One emerging field that promises to explode in the next two decades is robotics.  There’s a reasonable chance that the intellectual center that fuels that field will not be in Silicon Valley or Silicon Glen.  One has to look carefully at where real expertise lies.  Dr. Pete Markiewicz seems to think Robotville will emerge somewhere in the East, perhaps in a New England Corridor:

Interest in robotics is high throughout the U.S.—but the ability to translate grassroots interest into a full-scale robotic revolution may be stronger in the East.  What factors drive this split?  It seems possible that the very success of the PC, Internet, computer animation, and videogame revolutions may be hindering the rise of West Coast robotics, while in the East, robots are an extension of the nuts and bolts manufacturing the area has long specialized in.

It’s an interesting challenge to find out where the expertise lies that can get the deed done in any field.

Go Global But Think Local.  If, we would say, you want to invest in expertise, find that patch of earth where a cluster of good thinking and a bundle of very relevant results can be found.  Maybe you put your robotics money into Washington State or New Hampshire.  Or your public health spending into Finland.  Or your spice dollars into Paris or Kerala.  Get where the good guys are—not just the good talkers.

P.S.  Even on the subject of experts and expert systems, you have to look around.  Most of the work on expert systems relates to efforts to replicate the thinking and behavior patterns of average people, not experts.  It’s a different matter altogether to understand the why’s and wherefore’s of experts and to imitate their strengths while guarding against their considerable weaknesses.

P.P.S.  Incidentally, another researcher within the Harvard network caught on to pylori in 1940, using techniques he learned at a Rhode Island hospital.  In “A Scientist, Gazing Towards Stockholm, Ponders ‘What If’” (New York Times, December 6, 2005), we learn that A. Stone Freedberg was on the ulcer trail back in World War II days, but his boss deflected him into other, easier research.  Someday someone will do a book on Harvard called “The Big Fish That Got Away.” 

P.P.P.S.  The nation’s smallest state, Rhode Island, has all sorts of interesting distinctions.  It is the least disastrous state in the union, and not just for errant scientists and theologians, as we point out in Global Wit and Wisdom

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