Thursday, March 26, 2009

Economic "Expertise"

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has a great op-ed today about experts being a "stunningly poor source of expertise. ... What matters ... isn’t so much knowledge or experience as good judgment."

I began actually paying attention to things economic, oddly enough, when the economy went south last year. As I started really trying to understand, I became increasingly aware that the economic "experts" essentially just blather. They play with numbers and theories, but they don't really know any more than the next guy.

I know this because I myself have some facility with bullshit, having bullshitted my way through many a paper in college. I learned how to sound like I knew what I was talking about, whether I did or not. What astounded me was that my professors were taken in pretty much every time. Developing this facility turned out to be less of a waste of time than you might think, because now I can smell bullshit a mile off. And so much of the economic stuff the media churns out is clearly made of the same stuff as my college papers.

The "discipline" of economics (if you can call it that) apparently labors under the illusion that people are "rational actors." Holy cow! If you start from that assumption, then everything that follows is going to be a load of blarney. In my experience, people rarely act rationally. There is nothing rational about the greedy lunacy that took the world economy to the edge of a cliff.

So I've begun thinking about economics somewhat the way I think about astrology. It's interesting in that it sometimes drives the way the people who believe in it behave. That presumably sentient beings would make weighty decisions based on a lot of hooey fascinates me. In fact, I find it cheering in one sense. I used to think of economics as a sort of recondite science of which I was woefully ignorant. Now I understand that my occasional flashes of good judgment will serve me better than a Ph.D. in economics.

In his column, Kristof refers to an expert on experts (that should curl your toes), Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. (What? And we're supposed to believe this guy? But Nick, he's an expert!) Kristof scarily notes that the media's insistence on delicious little bite-size nuggets of certainty actually subverts any hope a media consumer might have of finding balanced, nuanced information. The "experts" you are most likely to read or hear in the media are the ones who offer those much lusted-after juicy sound-bites.
Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

I've known a number of hedgehogs in my day. They are indeed very consistent, insistent, certain in their certainty. It's a very comforting line to take, albeit with essentially no basis in reality. They will wow you with their expertise, reminding you of your own ignorance and need for guidance. Yes, they will cause you to doubt yourself and to doubt what you in your better judgment know to be true. Falling for their hoodoo has gotten us into a world of hurt and has taken us perilously close to a terrifying economic precipice.

So it's time to leave the hedgehogs—many of whom can be found, ironically enough, on Fox News—behind and find us some foxes who will help us think and act clearly, out of good conscience and sound judgment. Trust me on this. I'm an expert.


  1. For real -- common sense and good judgment are so much more valuable than any amount of "book learning". I think most "experts" fall into this category -- be they "medical experts" or "economics experts" or "nutrition experts" -- a bunch of people parroting what they've learned as if it is the great Truth, closing their minds to real world experience and contrary evidence.

  2. The journalism classes I took in college were actually worth the money spent because you learned how to spin and unspin data.

    Mary this is really well written.

  3. What drives and stops the economy can easily seem so mysterious, and in many respects it is. What I'm learning is that economics has more to do with human behavior than any exact, numerical science. And human behavior, although still mysterious, is not altogether foreign to me. Hence, it is reasonable to trust one's judgment and experience when it comes to pondering the economy.

    Thank you, dear friends, for your encouragement!