The Cult of the Expert

February 16, 2010 at 11:56 am

This is a delightful book, the kind that can be opened at random for a good chuckle. Titled The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, it devotes 340 pages to documenting the fact that expert opinions are often spectacularly wrong.

This is an important idea because, as the book’s editors observe in an introduction, “the mainstream media, and particularly television, have as their principal narrative convention the…interviewing of experts.”

Benjamin Franklin apparently said: “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” For years we have been badgered by experts who think humans are causing dangerous global warming. But as this book demonstrates, experts are often influenced by the widely-held beliefs of their historical period.

The Experts Speak devotes entire chapters to confident expert pronouncements on the innate intellectual deficiencies of non-whites and women. There are sections about sexuality, menstruation, and masturbation that make it clear expert opinion can have far more to do with the era than with clinical facts. The book also does a good job of demonstrating that even the brightest among us can suffer from a lack of imagination.

Writing in 1762, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (then the author of the most widely read child-rearing manual of the time), declared that it was “Nature’s law” that half of all children should die before their eighth birthday. “Why try to contradict it?” he asked.

In 1842, the Astronomer Royal of Great Britain (whose credentials looked like this: K.C.B., M.A., LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., F.R.A.S) dismissed an early ancestor of the modern computer as “worthless.” In 1956, another Astronomer Royal declared the idea of space travel “utter bilge.”

After participating in a 1876 trial call, the President of the United States acknowledged that the telephone was “an amazing invention” but wondered: “who would ever want to use one of them?” In 1878 a committee of the British Parliament dismissed Edison’s light bulb as “unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.” And in 1895, Lord Kelvin, a mathematician and physicist who was then also President of the British Royal Society (the crème de la crème of British science), decreed that airplanes were “impossible.”

The scientific press has also been wrong. In 1891, Scientific American declared the Panama Canal “a thing of the past” and predicted that nature would “soon obliterate all traces” of it. In 1909, it mused that “the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development.” A year later, it characterized as “wildest exaggeration” the idea that aircraft would revolutionize naval warfare.

In 1915, Scientific American backed the wrong horse in a discussion about the future of bi-planes versus single-winged monoplanes. In 1940, it denounced a physics professor’s ideas about rocket-propelled bombs as “too far-fetched to be considered” – even though they inspired the V-1 and V-2 German rockets used during World War II.

In his autobiography Mark Twain observed:

In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.

These comments surely apply to the global warming discussion (which contains elements of both religion and politics). One hundred years hence, the experts who are now promoting a catastrophic view of global warming will perhaps be proved correct. Alternatively, this entire topic may be reduced to an embarrassing historical footnote.

Either way, it’s clear that accepting the word of experts – rather than thinking things through for ourselves – is a really dumb idea.

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Entry filed under: books, historical perspective, media, predictions that failed. Tags: , , .

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