To Experts: a Few Words of Wisdom
“I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty.” –William F. Buckley
I began this series of posts by focusing on the annoyance ordinary people experience when they are constantly being told what to do by an ever-proliferating series of experts in almost every field of human endeavor. The overbearing weight of expert dictates infringes so powerfully on human freedom—on the need for people to feel competent and in control of their lives—that they rise up in revolt. The election of a man like Donald Trump is only the leading edge and harbinger of this populist rebellion.
Consider, as an analogy, teenagers, for whom parents sit as experts. And when we tell them not to drink liquor, not to smoke dope, not to drive too fast, not to stay up late, not to hang out with the wrong crowd, not to listen to racist and misogynistic music, not to have sex, we are technically correct. Hell, we’re experts on the subject! But teenagers who actually followed all that advice would find themselves on a very slow road to adulthood.
People don’t really learn by listening to experts, they learn by trying things and experiencing the consequences. In Abraham Maslow’s terms, people can be given the lower human needs—physiological and safety needs—by others, but the higher needs, such as self-esteem, have to be earned by people themselves. Experts, however, don’t understand this. They know they are mostly right, and they can’t understand why we don’t just shut up and do as we’re told.
Expert guilds always follow the same degenerative pattern. They begin in excitement as new knowledge is built at a rapid pace. But that pace can’t be sustained, and as the knowledge curve begins to moderate and flatten out, experts become far more jealous of their knowledge and far less willing to expose its deficiencies to the broader public. Since the only way to reinvigorate their expertise—opening the guild to outside influence—won’t be tolerated, experts become ever less smart and ever less useful.
Those of us who consider ourselves to be experts are keenly aware that we know more than the great, unwashed public. This leads both to the tiresome sort of arrogance experts are so notorious for (pomposity, condescension) but also to the far worse sort of arrogance that corrupts the soul and blinds us to our own limitations. If, instead, experts would compare how much we know to how much we don’t know, it might lead to a more humble approach to experthood.
The insularity of expert guilds causes them, always and everywhere, to mistake facts for knowledge and knowledge for wisdom. They understand quite well how much more they know than non-experts, but they have no clue how much more they would know if they opened their hermetically sealed pods to outside influences.
No individual non-expert will ever know as much as an expert about that expert’s field. But human populations in the aggregate know much more than experts, know many different things than experts, and vastly outstrip experts in wisdom—by comparison with which mere knowledge is almost inconsequential.
Bad as all this is, however, the real tragedy of the tyranny of the experts is that, by monopolizing fields of knowledge, expert guilds retard, and eventually halt, the forward march of human progress. For all their faults, experts are the caretakers of knowledge that needs to be disseminated to the broader population.
It isn’t too strong to say that human progress depends entirely on the destruction of expert guilds so that their knowledge can be put to better work. In the past, when expert guilds became so powerful that they controlled all knowledge, a revolution occurred that overthrew the experts and allowed progress to move forward once again. Those of us who are experts might keep that in mind.
As I was drafting the final section of this post, offering some possible solutions to the tyranny of the experts, I found—to my delight—that a guy named Gerald F. Seib had already done it for me. Seib was addressing a different issue: how (my words, not his) Washington insiders can stop being astounded and dumbfounded by events in their own country. But some of his prescriptions are useful here:
First, practice humility. See above for some hints.
Second, get out of your bubble. Lawyers tend to talk to lawyers and foreign policy experts tend to talk only to other foreign policy experts. Conversing with thoughtful people outside your guild can be a mind-expanding experience.
Third, recognize that conventional opinion is often wrong and it’s probably what you, the expert, think. Listen attentively to points of view that infuriate you.
Do I think that expert guilds will pay the slightest attention to those recommendations? No.
Next up: Investing In a Rigged Market