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How Not to Think March 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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The New York Times is read by millions of people everyday. Why do they allow drivel on their editorial pages? (The offending op-ed piece is in Friday’s Union-Tribune)

On Thursday, Nicholas Kristoff wrote:

Ever wonder how financial experts could lead the world over the economic cliff?

One explanation is that so-called experts turn out to be, in many situations, a stunningly poor source of expertise. There’s evidence that what matters in making a sound forecast or decision isn’t so much knowledge or experience as good judgment — or, to be more precise, the way a person’s mind works.

Huh? How does one make a good judgment without knowledge or experience? Don’t we go to doctors when we are sick for a reason—because they have knowledge and experience?

Then he goes on to give examples of how people who pretend to be experts can bamboozle us.

“But experts who are trotted out on television can move public opinion by more than 3 percentage points, because they seem to be reliable or impartial authorities.

Well of course. But people who pretend to be experts are not really experts. We are fooled by reliance on authority—but that doesn’t tell us anything about genuine expertise.

We are already deep in the weeds of a thesis descending into nonsense—but it gets worse.

The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

and then reinforces his point with:

Other studies have confirmed the general sense that expertise is overrated.

This completely misconstrues Tetlock’s thesis. Tetlock’s book is not about the uselessness of knowledge or expertise. Tetlock, a highly regarded psychologist, shows that a certain kind of judgment—one that is very sensitive to context, complexity, and change—is more reliable than a judgment that follows from rigidly held ideology that produces formulaic solutions.

Nothing in Tetlock’s book could be construed as an attack on knowledge or expertise. Instead, he attempts to distinguish genuine experts from hacks.

Kristoff in his zeal to sell newspapers is trying to tap into the anti-intellectualism that pervades our culture. Tristero over at Hullaballoo explains why this is dangerous.

This is one of the silliest pseudo-American myths, pure Norman Rockwell, that the average Joe (never a Jane) can perceive The Bigger Truth that somehow eludes the so-called pointy-headed experts.

This is how we get Joe the Plumber giving advice on foreign policy.

The decline of newspapers in this country may be a real loss in some respects. But sometimes they deserve their demise.