Elevating ‘expertise’ is wrong and dangerous

By Eoin O’Malley (10 May 2011)

How many times in making an argument do we rely on the eminence of a person holding a position to back up our own point of view? You’ll regularly read in the pages of the Irish Times that a ‘Nobel-prize winning economist says X’ and we are expected to accept X as a reasonable position. Richard Tol in the Irish Times thinks academic eminence is a good, and possibly the only proxy for expertise. Of course we often find that another Nobel prize-winning economist says the exact opposite.

We should not be impressed by these ad hominem arguments – ones that rely on our linking the evaluation of the person who says something to what they say. We should be interested in the logic of the argument and the evidence provided to back it up. Who said it is irrelevant. This is why most academic journals operate a double-blind peer-reviewing process.

Of course expertise is important. I would be uncomfortable if the person about to perform heart surgery on me announced that he learned all he knew from watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. Formal qualifications give us a good idea of what the person can do. But they are not without flaws. I’d prefer a heart surgeon with a degree from theUniversity ofWalthamstow who had performed a few hundred procedures, to some one straight out of a top medical school. Experience matters.

But Richard Tol’s objection to ‘celebrity economists’ is not as reasonable as our possible objection to an enthusiastic but amateur heart surgeon. First many of these economists are not academic economists and do not claim to be. We should not confuse being an academic with being an expert. They work as professionals, but do so in the real world and their experience in the real world might be very valuable. They might know how markets are likely to react. They do not produce scholarly works, so criticising them for not having their non existent scholarly works cited seems  a bit irrelevant.

In any case counting citations indicates how much you are being talked about, not whether you are right. One of the most highly cited political scientists is Samuel P. Huntingdon, in particular for his work The Clash of Civilisations. The reason he is so highly cited? It is a combination of his own celebrity – he is very well known even outside academia; his extraordinary thesis – that religious and cultural identities would be the source of post-cold war divisions; and the fact that he was shown to be wrong – economic interests are the much more important source of conflict. Most people citing him do so to criticise him.

An this related to a more fundamental problem with our elevation of expertise.  Experts can be spectacularly wrong.

Sometimes we tend to misattribute expertise. Linus Pauling who won two Nobel prizes ventured into an area he knew less about. He became convinced that vitamin C could cure anything from the common cold to cancer. These claims were stupid and later refuted, but not before many groups became convinced of their truth. I assume that headlines such as ‘Nobel prize winner claims vitamin C can ward off cancer’ were part cause of the vitamin supplement revolution.

And when they are wrong they tend to all be wrong at the same time. Experts like to talk to other experts, and after a time they tend to agree with one another. They even educate new experts to accept their world-view. It then takes a spectacular event to enable us to question this collective wisdom once formed. So the economic crisis has enabled social scientists to question the assumption of human rationality on which much of economic theory is based.

So why shouldn’t people be encouraged to ask seemingly dumb questions in areas they aren’t expert? Morgan Kelly is not an expert on the property market, banking or complex financial products. But he seems to have had a curiosity and a scepticism that drove him to do back-of-the-envelope calculations which alarmed him. Kelly was immediately criticised for not having an expertise in the area. Yet we now know he was closer to being right that his critics.

The Department of Finance has been criticised for not having enough qualified economists. It’s a legitimate complaint. But we should also consider that broadly similar policies were followed by the UK and US Treasuries both of which did have enough experts.

When asked about why the UK Treasury followed what transpired to be poor economic policies, a senior official in the Treasury said that there was a consensus – no one was free to verbalise objections. There was not a plurality of ideas being thrashed about.

It is far more dangerous for us to dismiss criticisms by people who we might not consider experts than to listen to what they say and evaluate their arguments with an open mind. It is evidence not eminence that we should look to when evaluating policy advice.

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14 thoughts on “Elevating ‘expertise’ is wrong and dangerous

    • Agree entirely.
      But how do we protect ourselves from say “fachidioten” who get an inside track? My favourite example is the decision to build two separate non-interconnected LUAS lines in the centre of capital city. This goes against common sense, cost-effectiveness and expertise. It shows that the powers-that-be learnt nothing from the the errors made when railways were first built and from experience over years in other urban areas in Europe.

      How do we, as a society, inform ourselves about the options being considered and the basis on which decisions are made – when Freedom of Information is not valued by the powers that be?

      There is anecdotal evidence that informed people who have taken public stances – questioning the actions, policies and opinions of those in power –
      are being pressurised in various ways.

      In short, how do we know that ignorance (including the ignorance of those who are expert in one sphere) does not lead to limiting the options that are presented for consideration and ultimately decision – something hinted in the posting below on the TASC conference?

      Our way of governing ourselves (Government of and in parliament) does not encourage the clash of ideas, from which minds ignite – as one Irish economist put some years ago!

      • @Donal,

        Agreed. We just don’t adversarial – except in the courts (where it’s poncily dressed up), mock faction fights in the Dail and, unfortunately and increasingly, between the public and the private sectors. In all other areas the emphasis is on being polite, ever so polite. And this suits those who exercise power and influence. They can conceal their ‘groupthink’, woolly thinking and the special pleading and concessions to vested interests in a blanket of consensus-seeking ‘consultations’ with ‘stakeholders’ (all conducted and informed by ‘international best practice’). The adversarial advancing of evidence-based contentions is frowned upon, dismissed or suppressed. But adversarial collective action is the only thing they really understand, are vulnerable to and therefore fear. So it must be suppressed and headed off at all costs.

        And one must conceded that those who exercise power and influence in this country have been remarkably successful…so far.

      • @Donal
        Good point. I regret that some have used my op-ed to try and shut up people they do not like.

        It all comes down to accountability. If bad decisions are tolerated, then bad policy advice is allowed too.

  1. “It is evidence not eminence that we should look to when evaluating policy advice.”

    This of course assumes that people have the expertise to understand and evaluate the evidence. If they cannot evaluate the evidence then it stands to reason they base their judgments on something else.

    I would not normally post academic articles on this website as it is not always appropriate but I feel this article would be particularly relevant for this discussion.

    http://iss.sagepub.com/content/21/5/647.short

    P.S. if anybody does not have access to this journal please email me and I can send you the PDF.

  2. There is a severe lack of naming in both pieces.

    Eoin seems to think that our current crop of theo-classical economists that gorge on faith based economics are good enough.

    Lest we forget, economics is not a profession thus “economist” cannot be a job title. The stuff about the DoF not having economists is a red herring for there are people in there that do the stuff that people seem to think economists do.

    There was a TASC conference in Croke Park yesterday where loads of various alternative economic ideas were presented but you won’t find any of it reported on in media.

    The DoF have an ideological firewall against such ideas but so too do our “celebrity economists”.

    Furthermore, regardless of the economics academics as experts, there’s a whole area of research into inequality and the social effects the recession and “austerity” is having.

    The academics involved in this area are never invited to Montrose.

  3. It’s a bit like showing deference to ‘authorities’ – whether these be bishops, religious orders, bankers et al. And we know from recent reports how this deference led to cover-ups of the most appalling abuses imaginable.

  4. Richard Tol is, of course, correct to highlight the importance of accountability, but, prior to the enforcement of accountability, it is even more important to ensure transparency of decision-making in the public policy sphere – who makes decisions, how are they made, what evidence is considered (or ignored), what reasons are presented.

    It is vitally important that ministers and those who exercise power and influence are held to account for their actions (or inaction) – and sanctions or punishments imposed for wrong-headed or stupid decisions, but, without knowing the who, how, what and why, they can evade all accountability.

    The currently proposed levy on private pensions is an excellent example. A policy proposal is developed and crafted behind the scenes and then presented as a fait accompli. It will have been crafted to minimise the risk that public revulsion will be such that it might force a U-turn. In any event, the government has sufficient numbers in the Dail to push it through – even if there is a backbench rebellion. The only possible constraint is provided by the courts. For a government in the early months of what could be a 5-year term there is some confidence that this will be forgotten by voters at the next time of asking, The risk of not being re-elected is the only remaining effective constraint on government’s exercise of executive dominance – and this generally doesn’t kick in until a few years of the term in office have elapsed.

    And it seems that most voters are happy with these arrangements. They seem happy to rely on the Constitution and the courts to prevent governments from going too far and to convey their views to government directly via the ballot box during its term of office via local, by- or European elections. There seems to be little desire to demand that the Oireachtas and its Cttees do more to scrutinise the behaviour of government and to hold it to account.

    It is perhaps significant that, after the current crisis broke in Sep. 2008 and people increasingly decided to punish the government, they bided their time until it finally ran out of road constitutionally and then delivered their judgement.

    • “And it seems that most voters are happy with these arrangements.”

      Perhaps they are not.
      At the first WetheCitizens public event in Kilkenny on Tuesday last (10th May), there were close on 200 people present – about one-third more the organisers expected. see here http://www.wethecitizens.ie/news/article/what_was_said_at_the_kilkenny_event

      Having being there, I cannot judge how many were “watchers” from existing political parties, movements/elected representatives/activists etc.

      From what I could pick up (as member of a table of 10 people), the turnout alone suggests that the desire for political and institutional reform (which came up during the recent General Election) has not gone away – at all, at all!

      It remains to be seen to what extent this continues at the other WetheCitizens events

      • First, a confession: I am a democrat, a passionate one.

        The number of those entitled to vote in general elections in the Republic of Ireland is about 3 million. Even in Carlow-Kilkenny it is about 100,000.

        Against that background, I fail to understand how the ideas of a gathering of 200 self-selected enthusiasts – or even a series of such gatherings – can have any persuasive power just weeks after the full electorate had its say on similar issues.

        What am I missing ?

  5. But doesn’t every single person who is educated in Ireland have it almost beaten into them never to question what they are told by ‘the authorities’ be they the church, politics, business or the civil service – will that change now the power of the church is waning – although they still have control of the education system – it must surely be perverse that in Ireland the institution that inflicted the most horrific sexual, emotional and physical abuse over decades are still left in charge of the very people they were abusing after the abuse is made public and also allowed to walk away from being held to account and pass the bill onto the taxpayer.

    It is the mentality that allowed that to happen, that also allowed the like of Bertie Ahern and Cowen and the various Lenihan’s to walk away and to also ignore all the people who were warning of the disaster about to befall us – of whom there were plenty.

    Is there really any evidence that mentality has changed?

  6. @Donal,

    Even assuming a minimal presence of spies and moles, not a huge proportion of the registered electorate of Carlow/Kilkenny. Still, I suppose, out of small acorns, etc…

    Two other factors, perhaps, need to be borne in mind, in addition to those I mentioned above, in relation to the enthusiasm (or lack of it for significant political change. First, all the key policy areas are under the control of the EU/IMF – and this is likely to be the case for some time. And, even when Ireland regains some sovereignty in these areas, it is likely to be much curtailed by further EU fiscal, monetary and financial regulation rules. Irrespective of whatever control voters might exert, Ireland will not be left to screw up again so gloriously in these areas. Many people many not be unrelaxed about this, given the quality of governance produced locally. Though they may get a little bit more annoyed when they discover that serious policy and regulatory dysfunction have not bee confined to the banks and land and property developments. The problems are endemic throughout society and the economy and the full scale has not yet been revealed.

    Secondly, either by intention or accident, voters effectively willed the current FG/Lab Govt. There seems to be a sense that each faction will hold the other in check in the public interest. We’re beginning to see governance where reciprocal swipes are agreed at each faction’s respective sacred cows. This private pension raid and the swipes at the legal, medical and pharmacy professions (the latter required as a condition of the EU/IMF package) will hurt FG supporters proportionately more than Labour’s, but anything that curtails the Croke Park deal or advances semi-state privatisation (the latter again a condition of EU/IMF support) will hurt Labour more than FG.

    This is shaping up to the most sado-masochistic political coupling ever seen – and I get the sense that people are reasonably happy with it.

    Given all these external and internal constraints on governance – and the major challenges the government is facing (not to mention the abhorrence of those who exercise power and influence of any reforms that might their exercise of this power)- I don’t foresee much demand for widespread political reform.

    I wish it were otherwise; that’s why I believe the focus should be on underemployed and effectively superfluous backbench TDs.

  7. We seem to have morphed into a discussion of citizen engagement in politics, but I don’t think we have lost the connection to the original post which focuses on the relative merits of economic policy prescriptions advanced by ‘celebrity’ economists and those advanced by economists based on peer-reviewed and published research. It comes down to establishing a forum where these contentions may be assessed and contested in a robust, adversarial manner and a judgement formed as to their validity and relevance. And I would contend that Oireachtas Cttees would provide the most appropriate forum for these robust, adversarial contests of contentions and evidence. Propositions and the evidence on which they are based would be advanced, these would be contested and rebutted, there would be opportunities for counter-rebuttal and for Cttee Members to ask questions and to seek clarifications. The Cttee would then be in a position to form a view based on the evidence presented for and against. Holding these hearings in public would provide not only enlightenment, but entertainment for the public and would enhance public debate and the formulation of public policy. Woolly thinking, special pleading, grandstanding and the advancing of propositions based on inadequate evidence would be exposed.

    Any amount of ‘citizen engagement’ will not generate this outcome. And, reviewing the reasons why, it becomes clear. Desmond FitzGerald raises a valid point about the instilled ‘deference to authority’. Most people are generally shy about making a public stand. That’s why they so much value the secrecy of the ballot and a voting system that allows them to express their preferences. And they expect governments to craft policy in a way that takes account of the preferences they have expressed. If they don’t they will be reminded the next time an opportunity to vote arises. Occasionally, when a government Dail majority is small pressure may be exerted on backbench TDs if the government is perceived as losing the run of itself, but this is the exception that proves the rule. And in the current circumstances where, as result of previous serious misgovernance, most key decisions are being imposed externally and where the government has an overwhelming majority and is formed of two factions representing broadly competing interests holding each other in check, many voters see no benefit of value in becoming directly engaged. They simply have too many other pressing issues to occupy them.

    As one person put it to me: “Why spend all that money keeping a dog and then barking yourself?”

    The challenge is to make the dog (all backbench TDs) bark to protect his master or mistress – and to bite when the need arises.

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