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Hullabaloo


Thursday, March 26, 2009

 
All Hail Joe The Plumber

by tristero

Gail Collins. David Brooks. William Kristol. Thomas Friedman. With stiff competition like that, it's hard to believe, but I think that Nick Kristof may get the prize for having typed the stupidest thing ever written by a Times columnist. It starts off almost reasonably, but it isn't:
Ever wonder how financial experts could lead the world over the economic cliff?

One explanation is that so-called experts turn out to be, in many situations, a stunningly poor source of expertise. There’s evidence that what matters in making a sound forecast or decision isn’t so much knowledge or experience as good judgment — or, to be more precise, the way a person’s mind works.
Uh, no. That can't be right. Kristof has started to set up a false dichotomy between knowledge/experience and judgment. As the column goes on, that false dichotomy morphs into an accepted fact. And so, after discussing some studies, Kristof is led to this (with apologies to Somerby) spectacular howler:
Other studies have confirmed the general sense that expertise is overrated.
Well, I'm gonna remember that the next time I'm looking for a string quartet to play my music. Or the next time I need to have surgery on my abdomen. Or hey! when I need to call a plumber, why I'll just call the most famous plumber in the land! Who cares if he's not even a licensed plumber?

This is one of the silliest pseudo-American myths, pure Norman Rockwell, that the average Joe (never a Jane) can perceive The Bigger Truth that somehow eludes the so-called pointy-headed experts. No one really believes it about anything really important in a personal sense. Kristof isn't gonna let me fix his car if it breaks down, despite the fact that, if I say so myself, I usually have darn good judgment, generally. (Note: sarcasm). But the myth persists about the Big Stuff, the notion that anyone with the right attitude can make the right decision when it comes to "solving" the financial crisis, invading Iraq, or running a country.

It's dangerous bullshit. Of course, judgment matters. But judgment without expertise and knowledge is suspiciously close to what is meant by...I believe the technical term is " wild guess." If judgment is mostly what matters, generally - which is exactly what Kristof is saying - then everyone's opinion is worth the same. The brain surgeon who looks at Terri Schiavo's brain images is no more qualified to determine whether she is in a persistent vegetative state than the ignorant television anchor who tries to tell the doctor that she may recover. (This actually happened. Anyone have the link?)

And it's a simple step from this kind of flattening of authority to the construction of totally bogus experts. For example, take the case of Middle Eastern "expert" Laurie Mylroie. According to Peter Bergen (in a private email), despite her Harvard degree, Mylroie has never bothered to learn Arabic. Nevermind, that this clueless paranoid was doing analytical work for the US government as late as 2007: after all, Bush was in power so the hiring of long-discredited neocon nuts was common. No, the real problem is that for the longest time, no one - and I mean no one, including prominent liberals I discussed this with - believed that an "expert's" failure to learn Arabic meant s/he could not actually be an expert on the Middle East. *

Indeed, it takes good judgment to make a sound decision. It also takes knowledge and expertise. Real knowledge and expertise. And exactly what is meant by these concepts - judgment, knowledge, expertise - is very fuzzy. But from what I can tell, Kristof completely misunderstood the point of Tetlock's book. It's not that expertise generally doesn't matter as much as judgment. Rather, it's that certain cognitive styles provide more accurate analyses than others of expert knowledge, including the evaluation of who is an expert.

I have no doubt that is true and that future studies will further refine not only the notion of good judgment, but also what is meant by genuine expertise. But to create a dichotomy, as Kristof does, between expertise and judgment is simply idiotic. It leads to a decadent, brain-dead populism. It gives us, in all his glory, Joe the Plumber. And folks, that's the last thing this country needs.

*In a comment, Laurie Mylroie asserts that she has studied Arabic and directs us to her website, lauriemylroie.com for confirmation. I regret the error and can't help but note that this is one case when a cognitive style provided a far less accurate conclusion than one might like from her expertise.