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Why Experts Always Seem To Get It Wrong

2014 February 23

In 1798, there were about a billion people in the world and economist Thomas Malthus predicted that overpopulation would lead to war and famine.  In 1968, at 4 billion people, scientists published The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth, which predicted the same.

Today, in 2014, there are over 7 billion people on the planet.  Nevertheless, global poverty and violence are at all-time lows.  Even carbon emissions are dropping (at least in the US).  It seems that the experts have were mistaken.

In a sense, that shouldn’t be surprising.  There will always be a wealth of experts arguing a number of sides to any given issue and most will be proved wrong.  Yet we still seek them out because whenever there is uncertainty, we listen to anyone who professes to know more than we do.  By looking for easy answers, we’re just asking for trouble.

A Battle Of Experts

After World War II, Richard Feynman was one of the world’s most promising young scientists.  He was also one of the most eccentric.  Few were surprised when he decided to take a year off to lecture in Brazil and play in a samba band.  When you’re a genius, you can get away with that sort of thing.

Yet when he returned to the US, he felt lost.  The physics world was engaged in a great debate about the decay of some obscure subatomic particles and he found himself completely unable to follow it.  His sister suggested that instead of listening to experts, he try to figure it out for himself.

So that’s what he did, but was soon even more confused.  The whole argument seemed to make no sense.  He dug a little further and discovered why.  The original paper that had given rise to the debate was deeply flawed.  Feynman had even read it before leaving for Brazil and discarded it because it contained a fundamental—and very obvious—error.

Apparently, none of the great physicists arguing the issue had actually read the original paper.  It had somehow just slipped through and nobody really checked it.  They just assumed that someone, somewhere had vetted it, so they went on with their debate, oblivious to the fact that they were wasting their time on gibberish.

Feynman never considered himself an expert, but likened himself to a confused ape, which was one reason he saw further and more clearly than everyone else.

The Confidence Trap

One of the things that makes experts so convincing is that they exude confidence.  They can talk calmly and knowledgeably about a subject, make reference to relevant facts and build a compelling logic for their case.  A good expert is always impressive, but still usually wrong.

In fact, in a twenty year study of political experts, Philip Tetlock found that that their predictions were no better than flipping a coin.  Further, he found that pundits who specialized in a particular field tended to perform worse than those whose knowledge was more general.  In the contest between the hedgehog and the fox, the fox nearly always wins.

This is so counterintuitive that it hardly seems possible, but it’s true.  The reason lies in the confidence of the predictions.  Specialists, with their deep knowledge of a particular subject, tend to not to incorporate information outside their domain, which makes for a cleaner, more definitive story line.

Foxes, with their broad-based knowledge are less sure of themselves.  They also tend to be right more often.  Confusion, more often than not, trumps certainty.

The Rise Of The Machines

As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describe in their new book, The Second Machine Age, computers are starting to outperform humans in cognitive tasks.  Google flu trends identifies outbreaks more effectively than doctors can.  Image analysis software beats trained pathologists and a simple algorithm outdoes procurement experts.

In fact, McAfee argues in a the Harvard Business Review that instead of using data to inform our judgments, we should turn our decisions over to algorithms.  In effect, the new role of expertise is using superior understanding to make better models, rather than trying to outsmart the data.

This will, of course, be very hard to accept.  High level professionals pride themselves on their judgment.  We’ve worked hard to know our subject and feel that we’ve earned to right to call things as we see them.  Turning decision making over to machines seems to devalue human experience.

And there’s something to that.  Decisions often have a human component.  Doctors need to take into account more than just diagnoses and disease, but also the patient’s lifestyle and personal preferences.  Procurement experts need to make allowances for company partnerships and other soft factors.

Still, more than we’d like to admit, humans tend to be poor information processors and those who profess to have superior powers of insight are usually just fooling themselves.

Beware Of Umbrella Salesman In A Rainstorm

One of the things that always amazes me about New York City is how quickly guys appear to sell me an umbrella in a rainstorm.  It seems that as soon as the first drops fall, dozens of them materialize out of nowhere, even if no rain was forecasted.  I’m generally forgetful about things like that, so I often buy one.

I’ve noticed the same thing in business.  Every time a new, exciting area emerges, a veritable horde of experts emerges, promising to explain the rules of the game, even before anyone has played.  They always seem so smart, so convincing and so sure of themselves.

As brands started to become publishers, I was especially surprised to find that there were so many content experts.  In all my years of publishing, I had worked with editors, designers and journalists, but had never met a content expert.  Now, they were everywhere!  None of them seemed to have ever published anything either.

Now, the hot area is data and surely there will be experts eager to educate us.  Just as surely, they will be cogent, logical, persuasive and mostly wrong.

How do I know this?  Trust me.  I’m an expert.

– Greg

12 Responses leave one →
  1. February 23, 2014

    Greg it is a long time since I made any comments here but this time I have to…

    “By looking for easy answers, we’re just asking for trouble.”

    In regards to my work on simplifying the economic model so that it can be managed or it managed itself (mostly) you could say I am looking for easy answers.

    The facts are the other way around.

    The experts are all confused and make a LOT of incorrect assumptions.

    They are entirely on the wrong track. YOU could write a good essay on that if you were to read and understand enough of the subject.

    The theorem / algoritm that works here is the one which engineers and doctors are taught to use:

    First check if everything is being done by the book.

    Fix that first and then see if anything else needs attention.

    THAT is what economists are NOT doing.

    When you fix those things then hundreds of symptoms of economic sickness just vanish.

    The solution looks too good to be true. But that is not true. It is the result of a well known procedure that works. That is why I do not like your sentence

    “By looking for easy answers, we’re just asking for trouble.”

    Not in this context anyway.

    But you are right – the experts are mostly wrong about their diagnosis in economics most of the time.

    You can hear me explaining some of this here:

    Joey Giggles (Stupid name – please ignore it) Talk Show QU&Ark show Scott Northcroft – 19th Feb 2014ic
    Join it at around 1hr 10 min of the 2hr talk show for Edward Ingram’s contribution
    This outlines four/six sources of macro-economic and financial instability.


  2. February 25, 2014

    Thank you Greg for an exceptional article! I really enjoyed reading it. The anecdotes and lessons from Richard Feynman were particularly valuable.

  3. February 25, 2014

    Thanks Edward. I always look forward to your comments.

    – Greg

  4. February 25, 2014

    Thanks Sergio!

  5. Steve Gallison permalink
    February 25, 2014

    Really thought provoking comments.

  6. February 26, 2014

    Thanks Steve. Glad you thought so.

    – Greg

  7. February 26, 2014


    You did a wonderful job in this blog post and I don’t disagree with most of it. I’m not a content expert and as you pointed out the rapid deployment and never ending flow of technology is overwhelming “human” recommendations.

    But, my push back is on content marketing as a discipline or whatever you want to call it. I can tell you working with clients in the trenches; most do not understand the basic fundamentals about content marketing and they need help.

    By “fundamentals” I mean blog structure, SEO best practices (not snake oil link development), Header usage, formatting, page structure, menus, etc. When we talk with them about an “Editorial Calendar” and how to use it for content optimization most need a lot of help.

    I’m not even touching on content syndication methods and platforms. That’s another comment. Stellar job on the post I don’t want to detract from the superb job you have done. Cheers……

  8. February 26, 2014

    Yes, Lee. I agree, but doesn’t that underline my point? People seek out experts precisely because there is a real need for information and understanding in emerging areas. That’s why so many “experts” get away with giving shoddy advice.

    The type of advice you speak of is sorely needed. What are the mechanics of publishing. How do you go about getting things done. What types of skills do you need. What are some basic best practices. These are super important (and I touched on some of them in my most recent blog post.

    What I think we need to avoid is experts as oracles and, as I wrote above, excessive confidence in predictions is the first red flag.

    – Greg

  9. February 26, 2014

    Agreed Greg – I get sick of all of the “social media experts” (don’t get me started) that have no grounding in technology, content strategy, SEO best practices, etc., etc. Not that I’m inferring I able to distinguish a neophyte from a sage or as you put it an oracle……

    I am in violent agreement – we try to tell clients we can help them with technology infrastructure and marketing tactics. But, that these platforms and processes are moving at warp speed and we can only stay on the horse for a 6-8 second ride and then we may have to rethink the strategy for/with them……

  10. February 26, 2014


  11. February 27, 2014

    How should one handle experts?

  12. February 27, 2014

    With a grain of salt…

    It’s one thing to take advantage of expertise when trying to accomplish a particular task. It’s quite another to rely on “expert” predictions about the future.

    – Greg

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