Friday, June 9, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Second-Guessing Experts

Certainty: 1:16

“Happy is the man…”

Don’t trust all experts; don’t trust everyone who calls himself an expert; experts, notably TV pundits, are often wrong, particularly when it comes to predicting financial and economic news (e.g., the stock market, the housing market, etc.). Such is the chief take-away from a documentary that I recently viewed on CBC’s show, “Hot Docs” with Anne-Marie MacDonald, The Trouble With Experts, written and directed by Montrealer Josh Freed, which was first broadcast on March 26, 2015.

Research following the predictions of so-called experts showed that many fared no better than a person guessing randomly or a chimpanzee throwing darts. In another case, non-experts were better than experts in predicting certain economic outcomes. One way of deciding whether to trust an expert is the level of certainty that he outwardly shows. The greater his certainty the greater the possibility of him being wrong; so much of his blunder is replete with bluster.

The Trouble With Experts (2015),
a CBC documentary produced by Josh Freed.
Via: Youtube

Such is considered confidence, equated with certainty. But it is hardly so, which is instructive. As much as weather forecasters or meteorologists are often publicly maligned, they do give forecasts with a level of certainty, such as 30% chance of showers. It might be good for those who make financial and economic predictions to follow suit and do the same, but somehow I have my doubts that they could do this, since so much of their predictions are no more than hot air coming from an over-sized ego.

As for political pundits, most of us know that this is (bad) entertainment, not to be taken seriously—no more than one would take seriously the words of a king’s jester. There are serious experts, no doubt, found in all fields of human endeavor, but something happens to their ability to think clearly and rationally when they decide to go on TV or on other forms of visual social media. They perform, not unlike actors, because this is what is “expected of them.”

They, that is, the TV experts, might not be aware of this process, or they likely might. This requires a level of self-awareness and a high degree of doubt, which is not easy to obtain. This generally takes work and deep introspection and access to understanding and knowledge that is often only found in books, some of them old and dusty. Ideas of goodness, truth and beauty. Might it not be time to blow off the dust?

Perhaps this “belief in experts” is an outcome of the persuasive power of mass media, and also in our inability to easily understand/perceive the world for ourselves. By trusting experts, particularly those in the mass media, we hand over to others an ability to think, notably on what is good and beautiful and true; this is a fool’s game. Marshall McLuhan [1911–1980], a Canadian philosopher and communication theorist, says as much in Understanding Media (1964):“All media exists to invest our lives with artificial perception and arbitrary values” (199).

If such is indeed the case, then it is up to us to find the (moral and ethical) values that we wish to live by. By no means is this an easy task, but it is a necessary one.  

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