Do you remember the old American TV game show, To Tell the Truth, which popularized the phrase, "will the real ... please stand up?" I recalled the show after reading Louis Menand's review of Philip Tetlock’s new book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? According to Menand's read, Tetlock's view is that people who make prediction their business—people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables—are no better than the rest of us. When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. In other words, these so called "experts" aren't so expert in their professed field of expertise- an idea which begs the question, will the real expert please stand up?
Unlike Mr. Menand, who seems to not believe in expertise, I think there are experts in their field, but as Nietzsche warned; As long as a man knows very well the strength and weaknesses of his teaching, his art, his religion, its power is still slight. The pupil and apostle who, blinded by the authority of the master and by the piety he feels toward him, pays no attention to the weaknesses of a teaching, a religion, and soon usually has for that reason more power than the master. The influence of a man has never yet grown great without his blind pupils. That is, those who truly have expertise tend to be aware of the limits therein, while their followers overstate the predictive benefits of the learned metaphors and by virtue thereof attract the greater following.
According to Mr. Menand, Mr. Tetlock thinks that we’re suffering from our primitive attraction to deterministic, overconfident hedgehogs, defined as those who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. Yep those hedgehogs sound a lot like Nietzsche's blind pupils of an ideology to me.
Baudrillard's notion of the precession of simulacra comes to mind as I consider this issue. It seems to me that the problem noticed by Mr. Tetlock arises because of the assumption that if the TV or other form of media denotes someone an expert, they are, especially if they promote an idea people wish to believe. As he might put it, the term "expert" at least as portrayed in the media, has lost its meaning, its connection to the real world. The issue gets ever murkier when you consider the "payola" scams being uncovered these days.
Consider the case of Doug Bandow, ex-senior scholar at the Cato Institute, who apparently took money from indicted fraudster, Jack Abramoff, to write columns favorable to Mr. Abramoff's clients. "Expertise" it seems is a salable commodity. This may not be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Wall St. and the media machine that promotes it.
The world of finance provides a wealth of examples of expertise gone awry and raises even more disturbing issues. I remember seeing Merrill Lynch's Henry Blodget on TV quite a bit before the Nasdaq bubble deflated. I wasn't surprised to discover that his "expertise" in securities investing was limited to the latter half of the 90s bull market. The surprise for me came in reading the emails that were made public during his trial. He seemed to know that he was promoting garbage. So, to the extent that one measure of expertise is ability to predict, Blodget was, in a sense, an expert in recognizing the lack of quality in the stocks he promoted, he just chose to push the more lucrative view, for him that is.
Curiouser and curiouser, as Lewis Carroll, a famous chronicler of incoherence, might have put it. Who knows, maybe some of the so called experts on TV actually are expert in their field, but they would rather promote a view for money instead of hewing to their ideals. Of course, this is not a new development among humans. The Catholic Church had great difficulty policing simony, a term whose definition grew from accepting money for positions in the church (which we might consider today to be akin to being named an expert) to taking money for absolution, also known as the sale of indulgences. Dante, who, I suspect, would have agreed with Tetlock's observations, placed the fraudulent, including Pope Nicholas III, in the eigth circle of hell. It seems to me a feature of humanity that no sooner does an institution gain favor with a population than some will move to exploit that faith.
In closing what struck me most about the review was not that such things happen, but that people are surprised that they do. Mr. Menand closes his review with the recommendation, think for yourself, which I second wholeheartedly.