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There are experts and there are “experts”

As I work away at a talk I am to give tomorrow evening at Christian Michel’s, I am also, of course, wandering about in the www. And during the latest wandering I was provoked into thinking about another talk, one that I will be hosting rather than giving, on the last Friday of February. Marc Sidwell will, that evening, be speaking about: “Twilight of the Wonks? Promoting freedom in a post-expert world”.

This rather witty cartoon, which I came across here, is very pertinent to Marc Sidwell’s talk, I think:

This cartoon is now to be seen all over the www, partly because, I surmise, both sides of the argument that it alludes to are drawing attention to it. The Clintonians are pointing at it and saying: there, look at those silly Trumpsters, all voting to crash and burn America. And the Trumpsters are pointing at it, and saying: look at those smug liberals assuming that they are better at flying the airplane of government, in the way that a pilot obviously is better than his mere passengers at flying an actual airplane. They just don’t get it, blah blah.

The point being: there is being an expert, where you actually do know essential stuff. And then there is being an “expert”, where what you say you know or think you know ain’t necessarily so.

Personally I favoured and favour Trump, partly because I put Hillary Clinton into the latter category, of being an “expert” with sneer quotes rather than without them. She has a long career of crashing whatever metaphorical airplanes she flies, her email fiasco being only one of the more recent of such crashes. Crashing rather than flying is what she is “expert” at. And her speeches over the airplane intercom only convince those already convinced. Many feel the exact same way about Trump, but my impression, reinforced both by his campaign and by how he has conducted himself since his campaign ended in victory, is that when it comes to being less un-expert, Trump wins compared to Clinton. We shall see.

I also prefer, with all the usual libertarian reservations, the ideological agenda that Trump, almost despite himself, is now dragging into greater prominence. The agenda (see this gigantic crash) that Clinton would have kept in great prominence is one that I detest.

I will now send the link to this posting to Marc Sidwell. If you would like to learn more about attending the meetings I host every month, and/or those that Christian Michel hosts, email me by clicking on where it says “Contact”, top left, here.

LATER: See also what Instapundit says.

34 comments to There are experts and there are “experts”

  • rxc

    Everyone wants to have unbiased experts in charge of everything. Unfortunately, unbiased experts do not exist. The real experts who understand an issue completely also understand the uncertainties and contradictions, and have used that knowledge to form opinions about how the subject matter should be dealt with.

    The people who claim to be unbiased don’t know enough to be able to understand all of the issues and subtleties. They cannot be experts.

    The more knowledgeable the expert, the better they can defend their position, to the point that they will defend stuff that is clearly rubbish.

    The trick is to be able to listen to the arguments of the multiple, competing experts and sort out the truth from the rubbish. It is not easy. But if you let them all talk enough, eventually the right answer emerges.

  • The more knowledgeable the expert, the better they can defend their position, to the point that they will defend stuff that is clearly rubbish.

    An important point; after all, a person may know enough & be smart enough to be an expert, but still not know enough to reach the conclusions they say they reach.

    The trick is to be able to listen to the arguments of the multiple, competing experts and sort out the truth from the rubbish. It is not easy. But if you let them all talk enough, eventually the right answer emerges.

    I’m not really confident that’s true. I am confident, however, that we haven’t figured out a better way of finding right answers.

  • Alsadius

    And even if you do find an expert who doesn’t have a bias on the issues themselves, every expert in a field naturally thinks of that field as being really important. A government of experts is a bunch of trees fighting over the forest – none of them have a clear view, they’re too close to it.

  • Erik

    For a mashup, I would be happy if America’s next government were composed of all the country’s current pilots.

    It would seem to combine the best elements of “first 2000 names in the phonebook”, with a filter for good personal qualities such as diligence, that hasn’t been polluted (I imagine) with much in the way of political filtering or beigeism.

    Current of course because the moment this was implemented, there would be a flood of pilot applications by powermongers, and so I hope the pilots would have the wisdom to find some other way of choosing their successors.

  • Richard Thomas

    Erik, it would sort itself out as those people would soon find out that you have to respect the way the universe works and can’t just pass a law to avoid having a high-speed encounter with the ground.

  • Cal Ford

    This is all part of turning the narrative their way. Or spinning, as we used to call it. Just as ‘the election was hacked by the Russians’ is an attempt to ‘change the narrative’.

    But it will take more than a smug New Yorker cartoon shared by SJWs on the internet to do that. I mean, does anyone outside of the New Class really thinks that running the country is like flying a plane? Or that Hilary Clinton is a trained, skilled technician? It smacks of desperation to me.

  • Alisa

    I am confident, however, that we haven’t figured out a better way of finding right answers.

    Furthermore, what qualifies as the ‘right answers’? The answers are pretty clear when it comes to transportation (aviation, incidentally and even more so). But what about governance of representative democracies?

    I found that cartoon dishonest when I saw it a few days ago, and I still do.

  • Runcie Balspune

    As far as politics is concerned, expertise is defined by consensus, not experience or skill.

    Those who are whining about current decisions being made by a “dumb” public are fooling themselves by imagining politicians as some form of a career that you can become an expert in and exercise knowledge unavailable to ordinary folk, the reality is somewhat different, the longer you are involved in politics, the less expertise you have to do the job.

    Just to add, the cartoon does not show whether the plane is flying level or plummeting into the ground.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I have a test to distinguish between experts and “experts”. How good are they at making predictions?

  • PeterT

    Yes Patrick, but unfortunately a failed prediction is invariably interpreted as having been made on a too short time period. To wit, global warming.

    In general, people probably have a decent nose for whether an issue requires a pilot, or indeed whether collective journey by plan to the same destination is necessary and/or desirable. I wouldn’t want to be on a plane piloted by Hillary, no matter how good she was as a pilot, as I don’t want to go to the same destination as her.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    At first glance the cartoon is quite funny but the joke ends when you realise the conceit of it: would passengers on a plane, who had been consensual clients of an airline, think they were qualified to fly it? (OK, there is a chance that, say, a few might be private pilots, ex-military, on some flights). As an airline passenger, I am paying people who are trained as pilots, engineers and the like to do a job. With politics, the situation is different. There is no specific qualification to being an MP, running for political office, etc. There may be some accumulated wisdom and knowledge on the way (let’s hope so) but no presumed expertise that marks the politician as being more so than the voter.

    So the cartoon actually plays to the current, deadly mistake, beloved by the likes of Remainiacs in the UK, that the great unwashed electorate are unfit to decide complex matters, and that it is absurd for them to assume so.

  • Mal Reynolds (Serenity)

    Matters of politics are often not technical questions but rather questions around values. The time you need an “expert” is not to point the country in a particular direction, which is the philosophical part, but instead for when it comes to actually moving the country that way. Our politicians are there to point the direction. We have the civil service to implement. We do not want the technical experts running the place. We want people who share our values with a big picture view. We want people with the technical experience, the actual “experts”, later on.

  • Stonyground

    How dare you people suggest that our politicians are not highly skilled in their chosen trade:


  • RAB

    A friend of mine in California sent me that cartoon earlier today. My reply to his email was…

    Funny but not actually accurate or pertinent. There is a right way and wrong way to fly a plane, fly it wrong and everybody dies. It’s a specialist skill. That can’t be said for Politics. The only specialist skill politicians need is to tell enough lies with a straight face to get elected, then they make it up from there. 🙂

  • bobby b

    The comic would make a different kind of sense if it were to show, in a second panel, the cockpit where pilot Hilary Clinton is refusing to use public radar in favor of her own iPhone app, co-pilot Nancy Pelosi is saying “we have to press that button to see what it does”, and Navigator B Obama is smiling at the turbaned hijacker standing next to him holding a bomb and offering him his seat.

    (Pilots, like city managers, ought to be competent experts. The people who hire them need different qualifications.)

  • Jordan

    “Why do these uppity passengers want off our plane when we keep crashing it?”

  • Gene

    Becoming a true expert in something requires some combination of acquired knowledge, acquired skill and personal interest in the subject/field one is becoming expert in.

    We must not overlook the third element in that equation. It is by definition highly subjective, and many, probably most, “experts” become experts for ideological or attitudinal reasons. Those motivators almost always exist prior to the development of the actual expertise. One example might be a climate scientist drawn to her field out of a desire to save the world from all those horrid humans. Does anyone expect such a person to allow something like scientifically vetted knowledge to overcome her mission in life?

  • Fred the Fourth

    bobby b: I love it. Perhaps someone who can draw will make it.

    Piloting an airplane is actually (to me, at least) an interesting metaphor for government. Not the government we have now, though.

    The vast majority of my time in the left seat was spent doing nothing except watching. Well-engineered systems (the aircraft and ATC) run by other folks were doing all the work, and pilot meddling usually made things worse.

    There are even joke about that: e.g. Trainee asks “Why is there a dog in the co-pilot’s seat?” “Oh, his job is to bite the pilot if the pilot tries to touch any of the controls.”

  • ns

    This is fundamentally anti-democratic, with a message of ‘Shut up you stupid proles! Leave the decisions to your superiors!’ Why even have elections? The proles (like myself) may well choose someone completely unqualified to head up the ship of state! Unqualified, that is, to the (self-proclaimed) Experts, who are on the right side of history and have all the right connections and attitudes. They (the Experts!) told me to vote Hillary!, who is the MOST QUALIFIED CANDIDATE EVAH! and (in case I forgot) is a woman! so she’s even more qualified than that.

    Finally, I am surprised that the Remainers did not gleefully grab this and run with it, as that is how their arguments appear to me.

  • Mr Ed

    What is the job of the President? Basically, to faithfully execute the laws of the United States, and to be the C-i-C of the various Armed Forces of it. Whereas, Castro’s job was to execute the bourgeoisie.

    The job of the President boils down to picking a decent Cabinet and keeping them honest, reading whatever the Congress shovels his way for signing and then reading the Constitution before picking up his pen, and hoping the fan rotates without projected matter hitting it, and dealing with whatever does hit it.

    Mr Trump is an outsider, unlike the incumbent who had a few years in the Senate and a life in politics before that. He has no baggage, except I suspect, a deep loathing of the political class from his dealings with them over the decades.

    The aeroplane similie falls down as the purpose of the flight is to get from A to B per the schedule, whereas the purpose of politics is to take the passengers, willing or not, on a journey at their cost, but never arrive and get off the vessel.

  • the other rob

    A government of experts is a bunch of trees fighting over the forest…

    Didn’t Rush have a song about that?

  • There are so many films about a passenger becoming the pilot that Airplane I and II spoof them. Surely this is quite a common trope; the pilot is sick so a passenger must take control.

    (For ‘sick’ read ‘corrupt’, ‘deluded’ or what you will.)

    Maybe the cartoonist should have checked with the New Yorker’s film critic on what message was being sent. 🙂

  • JB

    Johnathan – my thoughts exactly.

    In order for the analogy that the cartoonist was aiming for to properly fit, there would need to be a previous panel showing a vote of 100 people in an airport for the pilots, with the pilots of the plane promising first class seats to all the passengers in economy (while on previous flights not only not fulfilling that promise but handing out champagne to the existing first class passengers), announcing the flight destination as Chicago but behind the scenes re-reouting the plane to New York to satisfy the New York Hotel industry lobby, and finally, when 51% of passengers voted for the plane, the other 49% are marched onto the plane at gunpoint. Only with that preface would I accept the cartoon as intelligent enough to warrant any attention at all.

  • Deep Lurker

    My first thought was “Flight 93.” If the current pilots are actually intending to fly the plane into a building, then…

    And if the current pilots aren’t terrorists, but ‘merely’ deluded – “we’re going to fly this plane and take us all to Paradise. What kind of stupid-evil backward unthinking fools object to being taken to Paradise?” – then yeah, perhaps it’s charitable to say that they’re smug pilots who are out of touch with the passengers, and that a semi-random passenger just might make a better pilot.

  • Rob

    The cartoon is misleading. What it doesn’t tell you is that the plane is being flown by a sociologist who was appointed to the post because she is the daughter of the local Democrat bigwig. The plane is spiralling towards the ground while the pilot and all of the cabin crew are insisting the opposite. The man standing up is an ex-Air force pilot.

    The idea that an economist is an expert even in Economics is a dubious one. I would like to see two control groups shadowing every team of ‘expert’ economists – one making random predictions, the other a group of astrologers. After five years we compare their predictions for accuracy.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Another way to tell experts from “experts” is to watch how they react to the presentation of some evidence that conflicts with their hypothesis.

    And expert will say “Hmm, that’s interesting” and go back to the hypothesis to see whether it should be tweaked or maybe abandoned altogether.

    An “expert” will abuse the person presenting the evidence, try to “correct” the new evidence so that it supports the hypothesis, try to suppress its publication, and point to the prestige and importance of the people who came up with the hypothesis in the first place.

  • staghounds

    EVERY election is the passengers deciding who will fly the airplane.

    The people deciding their own destiny is the very point of having elections in the first place.

  • You all are way overthinking the cartoon, and there is more than a little virtue signalling going on.

  • rxc

    I used to hire technical experts to help make decisions about nuclear reactor safety. They were world-renowmed, working for national laboratories that had no peer. Some produced world-class products, while some produced junk. It was impossible to sort out the two before the product was presented.

    I had an epiphany when one of my engineers found a strange fluid circulation in a power plant model, so I told him to re-arrange the model so that the control volumes were numbered differently. This means that volume 1 became volume 2, and vice-versa. No actual physical change was made to the model. The flow pattern reversed. This indicated to all of us that there was a bug in the program. We reported it to the “experts”, and they thought about it for 2 weeks and then reported back to us that it was calculating a real phenomena – 3-dimensional flow inside a 1-dimensional model. This made no sense, and it showed me that I needed people working for me who could understand what the experts were saying, and call BS whenever the experts said something stupid. Which they did, on a regular basis.

    Experts are most often used to generate support for an idea that the sponsoring organization does not have the expertise to justify. And expertise often take the form of degrees from universities, papers published, certificates, licenses, and years of experience. These days, it is mostly degrees, certificates, and papers published. Rarely is it actual stuff built or programs successfully implemented. In front of a jury, it is all about credentials, because few people understand how things get built. If the decision-makers do not have their own personal technical experience base, or trustworthy people around them who are accountable to the decisionmaker, then they are at the mercy of the “experts”. They can tell the decisionmaker to jump off of a bridge, and he must do it, because the experts say so.

    Unfortunately, I think this situation is going to get worse, not better, because of the move towards “feeling-based” decisionmaking, and the PC environment where it is impossible to say anything that will hurt someone’s feelings.

  • Sean Ohsee

    Hey, that guy is Neil Armstrong, Chesny Sullenberger, Chuck Yeager…

  • There is nothing new here. Choosing between conflicting experts (or rather their conflicting advice) is a major feature of (senior) management; also of politics.

    As far as I can see, the most important things for good expert advice are (i) that it is self-consistent and (ii) that it is consistent with one’s own real-world experience (as supplemented by targeted search).

    Experts who cannot provide this, and/or who have some magical step in their logic, should be relied upon less. Such magical steps are those that are unexplained or unsupported – and are perhaps even very small. But they can and should kill the larger advice of which they form a key part.

    The magical step required in the cartoon is belief that there is any equivalence whatsoever in how to be an aeroplane pilot and how to be a national president (or other senior politician).

    There is, of course, quite a lot of similarity between being CEO of a very large corporation and being a senior politician – though the levels involved in the Trump Jump might be larger that one would wish. Both are management jobs and not expert jobs.

    Best regards

  • Paul Marks

    Good post.

    As for Mr Trump – he will get the blame for the economic crash, but it would have happened under “expert” Hillary Clinton anyway.

    I was desperately hoping the crash would come some time ago – so the Dems would get the blame for the bubble bust, but no such luck.