Gnomicon 247

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  247
Monday 14 January 2013
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Who’s to say who’s an expert?
Paul Newman (26 Jan 1925 – 26 Sep 2008)

This one follows not inappropriately on yesterday’s Gnomicon 246  by Galbraith. We live in a world that has become a society of credentialed know-it-alls with Ph.D.s, book deals, TV appearances, academic tenure.  I’m glad there are certain kinds of experts – say, in fixing teeth, in piloting jumbo jets, in putting out fires.  These are activities that do require quantifiable expertise, clearly specified bodies of rules and procedures, testable knowledge.  No problem telling that they’re experts.

But I am less sanguine when it comes to the kinds of experts who tell you where the stock market is likely to be in six months and then in six months give you their expertly formulated reasons for why the market failed of their original opinions.  Doesn’t matter how many papers they’ve published or how many boards they sit on or where their degrees are from – these are the experts in their own mind.

Going back to Galbraith again, one may concede that certain types offer pronouncements about this and that on the basis of opinions that may well be more informed than my own, but that – as we have so disastrously seen over the past few years – is certainly no guarantee that those opinions are in any sense expert if by an expert opinion you mean one that is correct.

If an opinion turns out to be wrong, is that an expert opinion at all?

Paul Newman was certainly a very fine actor (he did win a ‘best actor’ Oscar for The Color of Money [1986]), and he made great salad dressings, and I also think he had a point when he asked the question above.  I don’t pretend to divine what his thinking was when he made that statement, but I like it – it’s broad enough that I can read into it whatever I want.  I want to think twice about the opinions people pop out with an authority putatively backed somehow by some kind of tacit understanding – at least in their own fine minds — that they have access to special knowledge and information not available to the rest of the world and therefore should be taken seriously.  Well, the unimpeachable fact is that all those academic types who headed or worked for various government agencies where they could flog their pet theories about this and that into real-world practice where there were real-world consequences presumably had “access to special knowledge not available to the rest of the world” – and then look what happened.

If people who supposedly knew what they were doing – that is, Newman’s “experts” – had known half of what they thought in the privacy of their own minds and claimed publicly that they knew, a lot of the problems the solutions to which we are just starting to address in any kind of serious way would, you’d think, never have come about in the first place.  This is the failure of the credentialed class, and – scary thought – now they’re at it again, applying their many various ‘expertises’ once more.  And of course I – like, I am sure, a lot of other folks – cannot help but start wondering if the same old experts with new theories and new experts with even newer theories are going to be up to the task that lies ahead.

Will the government run out of spending authority?

Back in the day my Father was fond of a (perhaps reductive but perhaps not entirely unreasonable) thought about these types (oh, yes, they’ve been at this business a very long time!) and their doings:  if they’re so %*$&-ing smart, why aren’t they retired millionaires by now, lying on a beach somewhere and no longer busy %*$&-ing everything up for the rest of us?

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2 Responses to Gnomicon 247

  1. Al Cram says:

    Newman was “doer”. He was a late bloomer in racing but it is obvious he could have succeeded in professional racing. He waded in and put his energy and attention to the task, what ever that task was. Maybe it is too bad he didn’t apply his efforts to becoming a legislator (as opposed to a politician). Perhaps he was aware that despite the best of intentions it is very hard to get others to do the correct thing if it is going to be painful in their next election campaign, and he felt his energy might be best spent elsewhere.

  2. laohutiger says:

    I like the distinction between politician and legislator — the latter a vanishing type, to be placed on endangered species lists!

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