the experts are (usually) wrong – so dial down your trust meter

The experts are wrong a lot. If there is not a clear truth, the experts are usually wrong more than 50% of the time.

Experts (those who predict the future for a living) are, more often than not, dart-throwers. They usually perform no better than chance. And recently they have performed even worse than chance.

“Economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions.”

Most experts are biased by their experiences. In fact, the most dangerous person is one who says they are unbiased. “I am just using facts, not opinions, for this prediction” is almost always wrong.

We are ALL biased. We see the world through a very hazy prism of our experiences.

There is no unbiased news outlet. Even “real news” has lots of untruth to it. Almost every news story I had intimate knowledge of made a significant reporting mistake or factual error in the story.

We’re human and we make mistakes. We’re human and we see the world with our strong bias. We overweight certain sources and underweight others. We discount data that is very good and we rely on data that is wrong. We see patterns when there are none and see coincidences when there are conspiracies.

The “expert” can be dangerous.

We live in a world where people spend a lot of time building their bona fides so they can make their living off their “expertise.” Most of the top 1% of earners make their living predicting the future. But because people come with huge biases, their predictions can often be very, very wrong.

In even the most noble professions (like medicine), people have huge biases. Study after study finds top surgeons recommending treatments that they specialize in … even when the problem may be better served from another procedure. That’s because for most of us, every hammer is a nail.

Sacred cows tend to not be that sacred.

Experts tend to talk to other experts and can get sucked into a dangerous groupthink. Once all experts agree on something, even when it is highly speculative, it can become calcified.

Experts often say “that cannot be done” like it is a rule of the universe. But instead of a low of gravity, it is more akin to a custom (like setting fork on a left side of the plate).

We see groupthink happen most often is the softer sciences like political science, sociology, foreign policy, and economics. The more specialized the field, the more people find themselves talking to each other … and the more they will be prone to repeat one another.

While it is harder to happen in hard science, we see it happen there too. Wrong ideas are clung on to too long because it is hard to change one’s mind about the world. Max Planck famously said “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

None of this means experts are trying to be sinister. Yes, sometimes people are on the payroll of an interest (for instance, many people who campaign against oil pipelines are indirectly funded by the railroad companies or the Russian government), but that is not usually the case. Biases control people’s thoughts much more than money.

Protect yourself from experts through contrarian thinking

“Conventional Wisdom” is often very conventional thinking.

Before accepting opinions as truth, think through the issues yourself. Don’t just look for agendas but look for biases. If a surgeon recommends a specific procedure that only her hospital does, seek out other opinions.

Seek out outcasts. Seek out non-expert experts who often challenge the status quo. Some that I would recommend are: Peter Thiel, Naval Ravikant, Nassim Taleb, Paul Graham, Judith Rich Harris, John Hempton, Charlie Songhurst, Tyler Cowen, Sam Altman, Jonathan Haidt, and Slate Star Codex. I’d even throw in some more mainstream thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Athey, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Feynman, Tim Ferriss, Daniel Yergin, Robert Cialdini, Oliver Sacks, Elie Wiesel, Robert Caro, and Charlie Munger because people like them will always make you think.

Of course, experts can be right. They often are.

You don’t have time to question everything in this world — you might turn into the Unabomber if you did.

For instance, even if you cannot prove the earth is round, it is not a good idea to think the world is flat. It is likely that the government did not fake the moon landing. And when you were born, you probably were not delivered by stork.

The 40-year life lesson: experts are (very often) wrong

Just because someone knows much more about you about a particular subject, do not assume there are correct. Do not bestow authority on them just because they are wearing a lab coat or possess a PhD.

Summation: just because someone has spent more time learning about something, it does not mean that they are a closer to the truth than you.

This is expanded from my 2017 post on Quora.

1 thought on “the experts are (usually) wrong – so dial down your trust meter

  1. WS

    For illness, medicine is so hard because the stakes could not be higher (our lives) and often diagnoses and recommendations are vastly different among seemingly qualified doctors. I am not sure what the answer is. At the minimum, I look forward to the day when health records are organized and there is some use of data / data analysis in initial visits / diagnosis.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s