STUMP » Articles » Friday Trumpery: The Murder-Suicide of Expertise » 5 May 2017, 12:10

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Friday Trumpery: The Murder-Suicide of Expertise  


5 May 2017, 12:10

I have an entire series of posts on the irrelevancy of “experts” in all sorts of things, but mainly with regards to public policy.

Here are some things that passed my way recently.


So #Woke It’s Stupid: New York Times and Entertainment Weekly Contributor and Film Reviewer Blasts “Murder on the Orient Express” Remake For Not Featuring Any… Asians

….It is obvious that this “film reviewer” is absolutely ignorant of one of the most famous movies of the 1970s, and the most famous Agatha Christie movie ever, or else she’d know that Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman played those White Roles in the original. [now played by a black man and a Hispanic woman]

And she’d know that the Orient Express, one of the most filmed and re-filmed trains in Hollywood history, does not even cross into somewhere you could even kinda-sorta say is “Asia.”

Or, you know, she could have just looked it up.

FWIW, if it weren’t for this little brou-ha-ha, I wouldn’t have known about the new Orient Express movie. Looking at the casting, and the above picture, I’m having trouble with Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. For one, he’s gotten the moustaches all wrong.

And of course, everybody knows David Suchet is the best Poirot.

That said, I don’t think Branagh as Poirot is as bad an idea as Albert Finney as Poirot. And now I’m getting sucked into the hole that is IMDBI gotta find this version. And I will pretend this one doesn’t exist.

I will say Michelle Pfieffer as Mrs. Hubbard may be an absolute hoot. Lauren Bacall had played that part in the 1974 version. But that’s enough frippery for now.


This is not a right-wing critique – but left-wing.

Experts who spin a lot of detail, but it tends to be a house of cards that is easily tumbled down… yeah, that sounds like the sausage making that is public policy.

If only there were some intellectual humility of those creating their grand plans, understanding there may need to be tests for robustness, or test that their assumptions may be wrong…

…but no, more important to look smart. And at least seem right, for a while.


How ‘Settled Science’ Helped Create A Massive Public Health Crisis:

Anyone who thinks it’s enough to rest an argument on “settled science” or a “scientific consensus” ought to read about John Yudkin.

Yudkin was a British professor of nutrition who, in 1972, sounded the alarm about sugar in diets, saying that if sugar were treated like any other food additive “that material would be promptly banned.” He said sugar, not fat, was the more likely cause of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

For his efforts, Yudkin was branded a shill for the meat and dairy industries. His work was dismissed as “emotional assertions,” “science fiction” and “a mountain of nonsense.” Journals refused to publish his papers. He was uninvited from nutrition conferences and was ridiculed by the scientific community.

Nutritionists are only now grudgingly beginning to admit that their approach to nutrition guidelines could have been, well, wrong, and Yudkin’s work is only now being rediscovered. The federal government, for example, quietly admitted recently that there’s nothing wrong with eating cholesterol.

So why didn’t scientists wise up sooner?

Leslie correctly points out that, despite the patina of pure objectivity, “scientific inquiry is prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding toward majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error.”

That’s not to say the scientific method doesn’t eventually correct these errors, but the process isn’t fast or painless.

More on that particular item – an older piece: The sugar conspiracy

I won’t quote more, but it’s easy enough to find multiple stories on medical studies being reversed. Or all sorts of things being pushed that have minimal support.

Why Are So Many People Popping Vitamin D?

Opioids, My Mom’s Death, and Why People Trust Science Less

Some of it may be chalked up to eeeeeeevil, greedy people, but sometimes it’s just normal human fallibility, and the difficulty in getting people to admit that they were wrong.

And that they harmed a lot of people with their wrongness.


Animal expert worries that birds won’t be able to fly over the border wall

Our colleague Matt Vespa picked this up at Townhall over the weekend but I still find myself marveling at it today. The prospect of President Trump building a Great Wall on our southern border continues to divide the nation along partisan lines and it seems as if everyone has to weigh in on the subject. And I mean everybody. MSNBC recently ran a segment where biologist and television “animal guy” Jeff Corwin put in his two cents. The wall is a bad idea, you see, because birds and bats might not be able to fly over it.
Even the highly liberal MSNBC host had to stop him there and ask, “um… couldn’t the birds fly over it?”

The respected animal expert responded by saying that was a “very good question” but then went on to say that many of the birds and bats fly quite low to the ground when seeking food. Pardon me, but this just flies in the face of reality and you would think that Corwin would know better. He has bachelor of science degrees in biology and anthropology as well as a master of science in wildlife and fisheries conservation, specializing in work on bats and snakes.

Most of the plans we’ve seen proposed thus far have the wall at a maximum height of somewhere in the 20 foot range. That’s lower than your average two story house. Have you ever seen any birds (or bats for that matter) that can’t fly over a house when they need to? I don’t see birds crashing into my house either… at least the non-glass parts of it. Large windows are a problem for birds to be sure, but I don’t think the guys designing the wall are working on any large picture windows to improve the view.

I don’t think Corwin is dumb. I think he was being intellectually dishonest.

Usually, it’s not a case of outright lies, but exaggerating the strength of one’s findings. Or throwing in something you know isn’t quite right, but hey — maybe it will help get to the conclusion that you want others to get to!

….except if the experts are not going to fairly present their expertise, then nobody has no reason to trust them on their own say-so.

People do notice when there is a huge disparity between what is predicted and what actually occurs.

Or when it looks like the person keeps changing their claims, but always comes to the same conclusion. (…therefore, you must give me more money!)


Nicholas Nassim Taleb — an author I’ve had issues with for a long time — has started making some very important points with his upcoming book — On Interventionistas and their Mental Defects:

Excerpted from the preface of Skin in the Game

Skin in the Game is necessary to reduce the effects of the following divergences that arose mainly as a side effect of civilization: action and cheap talk (tawk), consequence and intention, practice and theory, honor and reputation, expertise and pseudoexpertise, concrete and abstract, ethical and legal, genuine and cosmetic, entrepreneur and bureaucrat, entrepreneur and chief executive, strength and display, love and gold-digging, Coventry and Brussels, Omaha and Washington, D.C., economists and human beings, authors and editors, scholarship and academia, democracy and governance, science and scientism, politics and politicians, love and money, the spirit and the letter, Cato the Elder and Barack Obama, quality and advertising, commitment and signaling, and, centrally, collective and individual.

But, to this author, is mostly about justice, honor, and sacrifice as something existential for humans.
Not only the principle of healers is first do no harm (primum non nocere), but, we will argue: those who don’t take risks should never be involved in making decisions.

This idea is weaved into history: all warlords and warmongers were warriors themselves and, with few exceptions societies were run by risk takers not risk transferors. They took risks –more risks than ordinary citizens. Julian the Apostate, the hero of many, died on the battlefield fighting in the never-ending war on the Persian frontier. One of predecessors, Valerian, after he was captured was said to have been used as a human footstool by the Persian Shahpur when mounting his horse. Less than a third of Roman emperors died in their bed –and one can argue that, had they lived longer, they would have fallen prey to either a coup or a battlefield.

And, one may ask, what can we do since a centralized system will necessarily need people who are not directly exposed to the cost of errors? Well, we have no choice, but decentralize; have fewer of these. But not to worry, if we don’t do it, it will be done by itself, the hard way: a system that doesn’t have a mechanism of skin in the game will eventually blow up and fix itself that way. We will see numerous such examples.

The interventionistas case is central to our story because it shows how absence of skin in the game has both ethical and epistemological effects (i.e., related to knowledge). Interventionistas don’t learn because they they are not the victims to their mistakes. Interventionistas don’t learn because they they are not the victims of their mistakes, and, as we saw with pathemata mathemata :

The same mechanism of transferring risk also impedes learning

The big problem is that when experts are wrong, they rarely have to pay for screwing up. But many others did pay for their bad predictions and advice.

Baldilocks comments on Taleb’s piece:

This was the itch: the segmented way in which too many people think. There is little to no consideration to what comes before an event, nor to speculation as to what will likely come afterward. I’ve even been told that speculation is a bad thing.

Like the man said, cause-and-effect is not only quickly becoming a foreign concept, but often a scorned one when introduced into a conversation. People want what they want and don’t want to hear bad examples and unexpected side effects accrued by those who’ve had identical desires, and, obviously, don’t want to think about bad outcomes they are likely to accrue in the future.

This manner of thinking is also known as insanity. Epidemic.

I was beginning to think that I was the one who was insane…and maybe I am about some things. But this? I don’t think so.

This isn’t a political issue, nor even an intellectual one, not really. Honestly? I think it’s a spiritual issue. I may have to expound on that later.

I look forward to reading two of Mr. Taleb’s books and they’re on my hold list at the LA Public Library. If you’re interested buying these, please use the widgets below.

I think I’ll go get Antifragile, which is Taleb’s first steps in that particular direction.

And while baldilocks says it’s a spiritual issue, I somewhat agree with her, though possibly not in the same way.

In my mind, Truth (yes, with a capital T) has been degraded, because people are stuck on a “BUT I WANT IT!” form of thinking, which is inherently a childish form of thinking. Many have claimed there is no objective truth, and devalue truth.

If you don’t think Truth is important, then why not be dishonest as an expert? As long as you’re aiming for a “good” result?

I think I understand Augustine better now with regards to lying.


But here are the hallmarks of why “experts” are not being trusted:

  • The experts are not all that expert (well-credentialed, but deeply ignorant)
  • The experts lack intellectual humility – they hold onto wrong claims far past reasonability as a result, and make overconfident pronouncements
  • The experts are intellectually dishonest
  • The experts aren’t the people who get hurt by what they get wrong

This has been a long-term problem. This is not new to the Trump era.

Yes, I know this is a “Trumpery” post, but the point is that there have been various “experts” bitching about Trump not listening to expertise… and others saying it’s okay for experts to be deceptive, as long as it’s in the service of bashing Trump (the Ultimate Evil™).

When the “experts” start saying they’re fine with lying or using politics to inform what research subjects are verboten, I really don’t want to hear about people no longer trusted their expertise.

The experts have been killing the value of expertise for some time, they’ve just ramped up their intensity.


That’s the suicide part, at any rate — the experts kept screwing up, and there wasn’t much of a negative feedback loop to keep them from getting out of hand.

But the thing is, there are usually competing experts. As with the dietary advice, there were researchers who supported conflicting advice.

But how do you find out about what the experts say?

It’s usually via media of some sort, and the grand gatekeepers drove the knife in for reasons similar to that of the suicide of expertise.

  • Many media people are deeply ignorant, and can’t tell credible experts from know-nothing phonies
  • The media needs eyeballs — so intellectually dishonest as well as overconfident experts make for a better show
  • It’s not the media people who get hurt by the sensationalism they peddle

The thing is, being able to play around with words and to spin stories does sell very well — the boring expert who says “There is no nifty risk-free trick to making pensions cheaper. There’s always a trade-off” will be outdone by the bombastic person yelling “THEY WANT US TO DIEEEEEE!”

Savvy people who want their specific message to get out know what to do.

Warren Buffett has recommendations for dealing with media:

3. With journalists, remember, their hypothesis is often wrong but never in doubt

Buffett revealed one of the most profound insights anyone has ever told me about the media (just fyi, I was publisher of Forbes Magazine for 20 years):

“The biggest sin in journalism is that a journalist has to start with a working hypothesis but they don’t always give that up when the facts prove it’s incorrect or misleading.”

His point is that once a journalist gets a hot lead they poke around with a few reliable sources that are likely to be confirmatory, like your competitors or plaintiff attorneys suing you or disgruntled employees. With all that confirmation making them look smart, it can be hard for a journalist to back down.

Here’s the problem. Journalist sources must be quotable and on the record, always available for deadlines. Now ask yourself, why would someone of that caliber be so generous with their time? Because they have an ax to grind or a bank account to fill.

Which explains why the best journalist sources are often conflicted, a fact the journalist knows but loathes to admit. The cast of rogues can also include anti-business activist groups and government regulators. As Buffett told me:

“People who have a vested interest (in one side of the story) are feeding the journalist confirmatory material all along the line.”

The Buffett lesson is simple. You don’t want to hear the slime from the journalist, but better you know where he or she is coming from then read about it in someone’s Facebook feed that afternoon.

9. If you want smarter journalists, then make them so.

It’s not uncommon to hear how journalists know so little about your business.

I asked Buffett if it frustrated him? He replied it was a fact of life, but it can cause journalists to underestimate the challenges and can affect their reporting, especially on complex or polarizing topics. Buffett said:

“Mickey Mantle once told me, ‘it’s amazing how easy this game is once you get up in the press box.”

The fact is, journalists aren’t paid to be experts on your business, they’re paid to know what their readers want to see and to be able to get a good story out of you. Period.

Your business is just a sideline for a journalist, a practical hobby at best.

Buffett went on to say,

“It’s a little hard for journalists to be planted in boardrooms around the country, but I do think that business journalists have to understand accounting and business practices.”

There is a small but profitable activity for a CEO willing to tutor the earnest reporter in the art of the deal and business best practices, especially as background during a slow news period. You need to start the training with the right reporters, take them under your wing before they need you or you need them. Over time, you’ll see how fast a study they are and the favor will pay itself back a thousandfold.

That’s for CEOs, but for others of us out there, we know we have to talk to people to try to get them to cover our stories. I have talked with a lot of reporters in my day — sometimes I get quoted, but many times I do not. It’s mainly that I want to point them to some facts and to have them cover it.

They can go looking for the human interest angle – I don’t do that myself, I’m a numbers nerd – to me, it’s more important that my message get out than it’s identified with my name.

So those are just a few thoughts for now.

I may pull apart the various strands of this death of expertise. After all, I have a direct interest in this, being an expert in my own way.

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