Experts: The Quintessential Tragedy

     Good morning, Gentle Readers. I haven’t fallen deathly ill, taken a vow of inscripience (i.e., a vow not to write), or been kidnapped by the Scientologists. I’ve just been working feverishly on a novel you’ll soon be declining to purchase. At any rate, I trust you’ve all had pleasant weekends. Remember that today is not a celebratory occasion. It’s a day to honor those who died in the service of our country. And now for some of my traditional bilge.


     Just the day before yesterday, our favorite Bookworm, in the middle of a piece on the “expert-baffling” popularity of Agatha Christie, tossed off this aside:

     …so-called “experts” have been spectacularly wrong about everything.

     This is actually an illustration of a natural law. Perhaps we could call it The Law of Mass Inquiry. When many persons opine on a given problem, the great majority of them will be wrong. Any respected “senior scientists” in the collection will be over-represented among those who are wrong. The pattern has occurred many times in all of the natural sciences. It is especially prevalent in physics.

     The reason is not far to seek. “Senior scientists” are the last people to whom one should look for insight into a new problem. Their seniority inclines them to view anything and everything as a manifestation of something they already know about – preferably something to which their names are attached. On occasion they will be correct…but when the phenomenon of interest is at the fringe of human understanding, they’re far more likely to be wrong.

     So why do they bear the label of “expert?” Well, because when it comes to solved problems, they know their stuff. And it’s likely that they know how to solve a number of problems that you don’t. So when you’re reasonably sure that the difficulty you’re facing is one that others have faced and conquered in the past, consulting an expert is likely to be fruitful.

     As he was on so many other occasions, Robert A. Heinlein was penetrating on this subject:

     “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done, and why. Then do it.” [From Time Enough For Love]

     The “expertise” of the “expert” is frequently useful as a challenge. “Experts” are notorious for being wrong, especially so about “what can’t be done.” I once had an old physics textbook, published in 1912, that contained the statement, “It is well established that the atom, the basic building block of all matter, cannot be split.” That same book, in discussing uranium, professed a complete inability to imagine what that element’s neutron emissions might be good for. I have absolutely no doubt that it was written, or at least edited, by persons conversant with “the best physical knowledge of the day.”

     In challenging the “wisdom” of the “expert,” you will frequently be wrong. So what? They’re wrong often enough; why should that condition be barred to you? When it comes to the “softer,” less mathematically susceptible disciplines, there’s no reason to hesitate. Go forth and make a fool of yourself in public! You’ll be participating in a hallowed tradition that encompasses many famous men (and a few infamous women).

     It seems paradoxical, but “expertise” is one of the strongest of all justifications for paying serious attention to “old wives’ tales:” i.e., the encapsulated counsel of earlier generations. Many have been the times I’ve wished that I’d done so. “Ve get too soon old und too late schmart.” For the “old wives” are experts whose degrees and awards were issued by experience. They would not preserve a custom or a tradition if it had let them down. While their ways may be old, they are also tested. They may be inefficient, but they produce the hoped-for results. As a Salada tea bag tag of antiquity once said, “Experience is a stern teacher; she gives the test first, and the lesson afterward.”

     So be judicious in selecting “experts” to heed and when to heed them. Remember Tanner’s Paradox:

     “At any given moment, of N scientists in a given field, N-1 are wrong. Therefore, for practical purposes (say, in administrator’s terms), all scientists are always wrong.” [Bob Leman, “Conversational Mode”]

     This generalizes without distortion to all fields of human inquiry.