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He Who Knows Least, Knows Best? The Fallacy of Expertise


I read a very informative book recently. Definitely a paradigm shifter.

Wrong: Why experts keep failing us—-and how to know when to trust them by David Freeman. You can find it on Amazon.com.

The author provides both anecdotal and empirical evidence explaining why experts often offer incorrect advice. He tackles some of the cognitive biases and malfeasance that rule organizations and ‘experts’ in the scientific, financial, entertainment and sports industries, amongst others.

Why should we be wary of most (if not, all) information touted by ‘experts’ in nearly every industry?

According to Freeman, the Certainty Principle is the chief culprit.

Certainty Principle: We prefer experts that offer advice that is firm and declarative; information that appears ‘certain’; even if the information is wrong or oversimplified.

Why are we so attracted to information —and experts— that appear so resolute?

People don’t want to wrestle with all of the difficult choices and problems that arise in the course of our daily lives. We don’t want to exert ourselves mentally anymore than we do physically. Easy to follow recommendations and notable research conclusions allow us to conserve cognitive energy, offering information that does the thinking for us and (ostensibly) provides a panacea. ‘Simple and convenient’ will always draw a crowd. Unfortunately, relying on this kind of advice can be dangerous, even deadly.

If you stumble upon advice that meets the following criteria, you should examine it with a fine tooth comb.

According to Freeman, we should be particularly cautious if the advice:

-          Is Clear-cut

-          Is Doubt-free

-          Is Universal

-          Is Upbeat

-          Is Actionable

-          doesn’t challenge accepted standards/notions but enforces them

-          makes dramatic claims (‘how to lose 10lbs in 3 days’)

-          provides retroactive remedies to recent catastrophes, even thought we may be unlikely to experience another incidence (i.e. offers advice on how to predict next tsunami in your local area right after hurricane Katrina)

-          is replete with stories (stories facilitate empathy; we are more likely to assimilate information that we can relate to and understand)

Advice that fits the above criteria is dangerous because it’s so appealing and easy to remember.  Information containing the above elements warrants your attention and should be fully vetted before acted upon.

What are some hallmarks of unreliable advice?

-          Simplistic/universal/definitive

-          Based on only one or a few research studies

-          Groundbreaking or offers unprecedented solutions

-          Espoused by entities that stand to gain from it’s acceptance (i.e. a cereal company publishes a study that concludes cereal may thwart the onset of adult diabetes)

-          Focuses on preventing another incidence recent catastrophe or incident

Now that we are aware of the salient features of fallacious research, we learn which research is most likely to be correct and reliable. Not surprisingly, credible research tends to..

-          Feature blunt statements

-          Be negative and less upbeat

-          Offer evidence that may contradict its own conclusions

-          Clothed in qualifying statements; reticent to offer a definitive suggestion; less certain

-           Offers multiple contexts. Describes how its finding might pertain to different types of people

 

The book covers these points in extensive detail and introduces other pertinent information for examining the world around you. Well worth the purchase price.

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