Monday, July 16, 2012

There are No Experts

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. -  H. L. Mencken

I once read a definition of “expert” – “ex” meaning has-been; “spurt” meaning “a drip under pressure.” That’s an expert – a drip under pressure.

The predictions of “experts” have been uniformly wrong. So wrong, in fact, that they’re worthless. (Amusingly - to me at least - forturetellers and diviners were consigned to some of the lowest circles in Dante's Inferno). But why are these babblers almost always wrong?

Everyone has in their mind a model of how the world works. That model is not reality. “The map is not the territory,” Alfred Korzybski wrote. (He also argued that human knowledge of the world is limited both by the human nervous system and by the structure of language  both assertions of which I agree with.) The world is so complex that every mental map will describe it with always less-than-perfect accuracy.

Those maps do work quite well with the hard sciences, i.e. math, physics, chemistry. The “soft” sciences – the maps don’t work very well at all. Sometimes, not at all.

People should, ideally, continually refine their maps to make them more accurate. If someone had a completely accurate mental map, the future could be predicted. But reality is so complex, and our brains so limited, that almost all maps will never work that well.

Some people refuse to change their maps. They want certainty, even if they have to delude themselves. Paul Ehrlich comes to mind. In 1968 he wrote The Population Bomb, claiming humanity was going to starve. “The battle to feed humanity is over,” he wrote. “In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

That starvation didn’t happen. Ehrlich has never admitted he was utterly wrong. He says he’s right, only his timetable was off. (I am reminded of what Orwell said: "There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them").

Some people are so desperate for certainly they’ll delude themselves their entire lives. Truly intelligent people can tolerate ambiguity.

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist, did a long-term study of why so many experts are so wrong. He found experts’ predictions can be beaten by a “dart-throwing chimp.” He also found the problem was that almost all of them could not tolerate ambiguity (the people, not the chimp).

“Experts who did particularly badly,” writes Dan Gardner, summarizing Tetlock’s study, “…were not comfortable with complexity and uncertainty. They sought to ‘reduce the problem to some core theoretical scheme’…and they used that theme over and over, like a template, to stamp out predictions.”

Neil Stephenson, in his novel The Diamond Age, wrote this: "The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people--and this is true whether or not they are well-educated--is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations--in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward."

People who have one core scheme that they use over and over are ideologues. Sometimes they’re fanatics unable to change their minds. Russell Kirk defined ideology this way: "Ideology means political fanaticism...[they] maintain that human nature and society may be perfected by mundane, secular means..."

These people also suffer from hubris, which the Greeks considered a type of insanity. The opposite of hubris is humility, which is correctly defined as knowing your limitations. Blowhards never know their limitations, and therefore are not humble.
Let’s use as an examples political and economic liberty. Those concepts, when applied to reality, work best for people and society. These days, those who believe in the minimum government – one that protects life, liberty and property – are called libertarians. Those who don’t believe in any government at all are called anarcho-capitalists. Each has a core scheme they believe applies universally.

Now here’s where both groups suffer cognitive dissonance: tariffs work. Both Japan and South Korea became wealthy by using tariffs to discourage imports and encourage exports. Both countries also supported developing industries.

Those two countries did what the United States did. At first the U.S. used tariffs to discourage imports, encourage imports, and to support infant industries. It allowed the free market inside the country to create wealth, but there was no international “free trade.”

These practices are not supposed to work. But they did. People who cannot admit these findings will go to desperate lengths to prove they didn’t work. They remind me of what Robert Heinlein wrote: people are not so much rational as rationalizing. Some people will rationalize anything rather than change their minds.

Ideologues even go so far as to create alternate realities: “If the United States had international free trade at the beginning it would have been even wealthier.” This, being an alternate reality, is a fantasy.

The free market does not exist in any country in the world. The West comes closest. What “libertarian” economists are trying to do is impose their map on the terrain, even though it doesn’t work. They are refusing to refine their mental maps and make them more accurate. They like the certainty of simplicity.

Writes Gardner: “Experts who did better than the average…had no template. Instead, they drew information and ideas from multiple sources and sought to synthesize it. They were self-critical, always questioning whether what they believed was really was really true. And when they were shown they had made mistakes, they didn’t try to minimize, hedge, or evade. They simply acknowledged they were wrong and adjusted their thinking accordingly. Most of all, these experts were comfortable seeing the world as complex and uncertain – so comfortable that they tended to doubt the ability of anyone to predict the future.”

I’ll give another example of cognitive dissonance among libertarians. They’ll spend weeks caressing the texts of Murray Rothbard, a good economist but a lousy historian. They think Ayn Rand, a lunatic, makes sense. But they know little of Thomas Jefferson, the smartest of the Founding Fathers.

Jefferson despised corporations, seeing how destructive they were. He founded the University of Virginia, believing in free college education. He thought the rich should pay more in taxes. He supported tariffs and protecting infant industries. He thought very litle should be left to children because he believed great wealth was always used to ultimately take over the government.

Whether Jefferson was right or wrong is not the point. The point is that when a “libertarian” encounters Jefferson their brains immediately shut down. Wrong, wrong, wrong! This is because such people cannot tolerate ambiguity.

People who cannot tolerate ambiguity are never experts. You can say that, mostly, they’re just drips.

“Show some fucking adaptability!” ― Bobby Shaftoe, Cryptonomicon

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