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The Expert Problem October 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, politics, society.
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My current DC Metro book is “Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb—a full report is coming when I finish. The Black Swan theory says that history is largely a product of low-probability, high-impact, unpredictable events—think fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11, Facebook—and that bell-curve events are low-impact essentially by virtue of their predictability. There are several interesting and counter-intuitive conclusions that fall out of the BS theory. One is that “book” smarts are often useless—even dangerous—in the real world because the artificially simplified world of the academy often prejudices one to believe that he understands the world more than he does, to underestimate the unknown and its effects, and to willfully ignore risk. Another is that fields that are fundamentally dynamic and prone to exogenous influences also fundamentally resist expertise—only static, self-contained fields can have true experts. Physics lends itself to expertise—it’s a closed system and the rules don’t change over time. So does brain surgery. And plumbing. But economics doesn’t have experts—economists are only slightly and insignificantly better than non-economists at predicting future economic events. Neither does politics. Nor business. Nor, fundamentally, can any discipline that deals with human subjects. The famous adage that “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” is trivially both true and false. It’s trivially false because history never exactly repeats itself, even in microcosm. The same social and techonolgical context never comes up twice, nor does the exact sequence of external events. It’s trivially true because in a rough sense even those who do know history are doomed to repeat it, insofar as history repeats” itself. Knowledge of historical events does not help much in predicting the future. And you laugh dismissively when I tell you that I could run the Eagles or be a decent Senator! Well, I don’t know about the Eagles, but I would certainly be a better Senator than some of the yahoos who will appear on actual ballots this coming Tuesday. You don’t need to know much about the theory and history of politics and economics to be an effective legislator. Theory—which doesn’t capture large unpredictable events—and history—which never repeats—exactly are largely irrelevant in determining whether a given piece of legislation will achieve its desired effect.

The political “expert problem” is interesting in light of the alarming number of (Republican) candidates for national political office who are ignorant and seemingly proud of it. I parenthesized Republican because all the ignorant candidates I can think of are Republican. Christine “I didn’t go to Yale! I’m YOU!” O’Donnell. Ron “This election is not about ‘details’” Johnson. Sharron “I can’t spell Sharon” Angle. If BS is right and deep knowledge may be as much a hindrance to legislative and governance success as a pre-requisite, then maybe TEApublicans are on to something. Maybe Samantha would make a kick-ass Senator.

Nah! Taleb downplays domain-specific knowledge in some domains but not the process of acquiring knowledge or the tools used in acquiring it—intelligence, curiosity, and skepticism. Deep reserves of knowledge are rarely helpful in dealing with a given economical-political situation, what is helpful is the ability to gather information specific to the situation at hand, to weed out low-order details, and to weigh outcomes of different strategies.
While Team Christine certainly lacks domain specific knowledge—at least in constitutional law although perhaps not in other domains—she also lacks the tools to deal with real-world situations. All she has is doe eyes, white teeth, and Sunday-school dogma.

The ironic thing about the “I didn’t go to Yale! I’m YOU!” campaign is that it actually proves Christine’s point. What Christine is hopefully trying to say is that she didn’t have the opportunity to go to Yale because she isn’t an old-boy/old-money elitist like her opponent Chris Coons. But whereas old-boy/old-money may describe Yale of the 1950s, Yale of the 1990s has need-blind admission policies and enrolls more women than men. Christine didn’t go to Yale because she wouldn’t have gotten close to getting in if she tried. By saying “I didn’t go to Yale” Christine may as well be saying “I’m not intelligent!” and by saying it with the tone that suggests “I wouldn’t want to go to Yale even if I could!” she is effectively saying “I don’t want to be a Senator!”

Christine, what do you think the Senate is if not Yale 2.0? The point of Yale is not to learn more than you would learn at Fairleigh Dickinson or the Claremont Institute or Wilfred Beauty Academy or wherever it is you went, it’s to get to hang out with other people smart enough to get into Yale! Christine, you are obviously ignorant. But that’s not your biggest problem. The biggest problem is that you lack the mental tools and desire to overcome your ignorance to suit the situation. What is the last book you read? Facebook? Could you give a specific action item for any one of your issues? A cap-and-trade system is a “market-based” approach to the energy problem—do you favor that? How many points behind Coons are you polling? What’s four plus two? By the way, the answer to the last question is 6. And to the one before that is 18. Which thankfully means that after Tuesday, we will never hear from you again.

Unfortunately, we might still hear from Mr. Johnson—leading stalwart Russ Feingold by an incomprehensible six points—and Ms. Angle—ahead of majority leader by four points, albeit in a beaten-down state like Nevada. I understand the anti-incumbent backlash. I don’t agree with it but I understand where it comes from. But anti-incumbent does not equal pro-idiot! How did we as a society get to a place where a large swath of us values ignorance over erudition? Blind faith over intellectual curiosity? Claremont Institute—which by the way is a conservative think tank, not a college—over Yale Law? If you had to have brain surgery—or even a root canal—would you like to be treated by Christine O’Donnell or Chris Coons? If you were on trial and facing the death penalty—or even six months in Martha Stewart-ville—would you want to be defended by Sharron Angle or Harry Reid? How did we get to a place where we value intelligence and competence in most places except for politics? How did we get to a place where we simultaneously scream about the incompetence of government but fawn over clearly clueless politicians? People, we have huge problems. Now is not the time to be putting crackpots and morons in Congress! An ignorant doctor can kill a few people. An ignorant politician, properly placed, can actually do a lot more damage than that.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go restore sanity! Woot!

P.S. This post was partially inspired by Anne Applebaum’s “Rise of the ‘Ordinary’ Elite.” The piece describes a new kind of populism which is not “anti-elite”, but “anti-elite-education.” Its targets are not the old-money, old-boy elite but the new, upwardly mobile, self-made elite. Working-class to White House elites like the Obamas. The piece is interesting precisely because of the angle it avoids—racism! Applebaum may not want to touch this subject because she likes her job at the Washington Post, but I have no such problems and I will touch most things. Merit-based elite education is the great equalizer. It’s the “in” to the circle of national politics and power. What could be worse if you are an ignorant white person than to see a black family use that vehicle to get into the passing lane and blow by you. While elite education was the privilege of privilege, you could always pretend that “you could have been a contender” if only you were born to the right parents. That elite status was not fairly earned and—by juxtaposition your non-elite status—was not your fault. But now that elite education is open to all and you still can’t get a sniff, you have no one to blame but your ignorant self and perhaps your ignorant parents. And given this what could be a more transparent self-preservation strategy than to pretend that elite education doesn’t matter anyways? And that you wouldn’t avail yourself of it if you tried? Who do you think you’re fooling other than ignorant people like yourself? Pfffft.