Why the Experts Get Everything Wrong

Being an expert means never having to say you’re sorry. If it turns out you’re wrong about something—about, say, whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or whether there was a housing bubble—that’s okay. As an expert you must have had good reasons for being wrong. Anyone who got right what you got wrong must have simply gotten lucky.


That’s what most of our experts say, anyway. Sometimes, of course, it is reasonable, on the basis of what we know, to draw the wrong conclusion. But in a recent essay, Thomas Frank decries our reluctance to hold our so-called “experts” responsible for their mistakes. Franks points out that we continue treat people like Bill Kristol and Thomas Friedman who were wrong about Iraq—and who were wrong again and again—as experts on Middle Eastern policy. And economists like Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers who failed to see the economic crisis coming are the same economists we entrusted to fix the economy.

Each separate catastrophe should have been followed by a wave of apologies and resignations; taken together—and given that a good percentage of the pundit corps signed on to two or even three of these idiotic storylines—they mandated mass firings in the newsrooms and op-ed pages of the nations. Quicker than you could say “Ahmed Chalabi,” an entire generation of newsroom fools should have lost their jobs.

But that’s not what happened. The supposed experts who were wrong on numerous important counts still occupy the same important positions. Meanwhile the people who were derided as cranks for arguing that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or that there was a housing bubble—even though they gave compelling reasons for doing so—are still dismissed as cranks.

Frank is right. If you want to to be considered an expert in something, you don’t have to demonstrate real expertise. What you have to do is show you fit in and get along. That's why it's not surprising our experts get things wrong. By and large the people who run our government and who shape our opinions are the popular kids, not the ones who ace the real world’s tests. Nouriel Roubini—one of the economists who saw the financial crisis coming—gets a few more speaking engagements than before the crisis, but he isn’t taken much more seriously. As Frank says, there is no real social value in being right about the important things.

The people who do get taken seriously are the ones who tell us what we want to hear. In practice that generally means what people with money want to hear. It doesn’t really matter whether our experts actually believe what they’re saying, if they've been cherry-picked to say it. They are enablers more than they are real experts. The whole institutional structure of expertise—the news organizations, the think tanks, and the research institutions that give experts credibility—largely serves the interests of the people and corporations who fund it. So it should not be surprising that we have experts who say that bankers were blameless in the economic crisis, that coal is clean, or that the military budget needs to be bigger. It is ultimately up to us to be better, more skeptical consumers of expert analysis. Especially where there’s money at stake.

Expert image from Ivelin Radkov/Shutterstock

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Beyond Meat announces plan to sell ‘ground beef’ in stores. Shares skyrocket.

Beyond Beef sizzles and marbleizes just like real beef, Beyond Meat says.

Culture & Religion
  • Shares of Beyond Meat opened at around $200 on Tuesday morning, falling to nearly $170 by the afternoon.
  • Wall Street analysts remain wary of the stock, which has been on a massive hot streak since its IPO in May.
  • Beyond Meat faces competition from Impossible Foods and, as of this week, Tyson.
Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Can you guess which state has the most psychopaths?

A recent study used data from the Big Five personality to estimate psychopathy prevalence in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.

Surprising Science
  • The study estimated psychopathy prevalence by looking at the prevalence of certain traits in the Big Five model of personality.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest prevalence of psychopathy, compared to other areas.
  • The authors cautioned that their measurements were indirect, and that psychopathy in general is difficult to define precisely.
Keep reading Show less