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The Blinding Light of Experts

Apr 14, 2010 In Web Culture By Nishant Kothary

We love experts. After all, they simplify life by sharing with us the wisdom they’ve acquired through years of hard work. What’s not to love about that? Well, other than the fact that experts are wrong—a lot—it’s a pretty good deal

Lobotomized dude In the 30′s, many doctors believed that mental illnesses like schizophrenia could be cured using procedures like transorbital lobotomy. The procedure, in a nutshell, involved a shock to the patient’s head that rendered him unconscious, followed by the hammering of an icepick-like device into the patient’s brain from below the eyelid. The device was then swiped back and forth in an effort to “cure” the patient.

In the 60′s, some heart surgeons packed the chest cavity around the heart with asbestos fibers. Yes, that’s the same asbestos that’s been banned worldwide because of its fatal effects on humans.

Most recently, the entire US financial system caved in. As we are now learning, this was in no small part due to financial industry pundits’ questionable motives and undying faith in the virtues of rational economics.

These are just a few examples of what happens when the wisdom of “experts” goes unquestioned.

We Did Start the Fire

Cat begging desperately The prevalence of “experts” involves a supply-demand problem. Expertise arises out of our demanding it. More often than we’d like to admit, it arises out of our desperation. We need to believe that there’s a way to predict the stock market. We need to believe that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured with electric shock. We need to believe that the process of building software can be captured by a diagram with a few labeled boxes connected by arrows.

It’s not the only reason, but it’s one we can’t discount. We reap what we sow. We have to bear some of the blame.

The Business of Being Right

Once you’re an expert, you’re in the business of being right. If you’re right,business is good. If you’re right a lot,business is better. Business is best when you’re never wrong. As an expert, “being right” is the core tenet of your brand.

Industry experts aren’t motivated—beyond the evolutionary pull of guilt—to admit their faults when they’re wrong. This in no way implies that all experts claim to be right at all costs, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. But it’s something to think about before you give an expert your undying trust.

“The Media”

The widespread acceptance of lobotomies can be attributed in part to a multi-decade long trend of its positive portrayal in popular press. The media—and I’m using the term loosely here to cover both popular press and social media—plays a tremendous role in evangelizing or demonizing expertise.

Sheep We trust brands. And we systematically conform in groups, even when we don’t truly agree. At the junction of those two human characteristics lies an irrational need to believe. When one reputable “expert” endorses the advice of another, it tends to plug us into the matrix. It’s difficult to unplug ourselves from it.

It’s not because we’re stupid; it’s because we’re human and imperfect by design. But remember, so is “the media”.

Context is King

Someone smart once said, “Context is key—from that comes the understanding of everything.” Without context we understand nothing and turn to the comfort of naïve black & white analyses.

Here’s a clear and more personal example from just last week: MIX Online sponsored the 2010 IA Summit. A part of our sponsorship was to hook each attendee up with a beautiful printed copy of our A Website Named Desire poster. One of the featured speakers, an expert in visual thinking, threw it up on a slide as an example of how not to visualize a problem. It was too overwhelming, he suggested; it could be simplified. “It’s not how I would have done it.” Ironically, the poster is busy by design; building web sites is a hairy, hairy field and we wanted to depict that with honesty.

A sneak peek at a screen clipping of the upcoming store for the poster clarifies the context that he missed:

Sneak peek at AWND store Experts often dole out advice without grasping the full context of a situation. It’s just the nature of the business.

The Point

We live in the weird world of social media. A world where “everyone is a designer”, we’re all focused on our “whuffie” and the distance between average and expert seems to have become approximately 10,000 followers on Twitter.

History and studies have shown that experts are accurate only 50% of the time. It has also shown that the utility of expert advice increases in direct correlation with our effort of investment, ongoing involvement and ability to remain rational as we seek solutions to our unique problems.

The point is that we’ve got to step up our game now, more than ever: in how we identify, evaluate and utilize our experts.

Then again, I’m no expert on the topic. :-)

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12 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Gator said on Apr 14, 2010

Well said! I think once someone reaches that level of "expertise," people tend to believe everything he/she says without a second thought. This is a nice reminder to draw our own conclusions and look deeper. And yes, context surely is key. As you mentioned, the whole point of the Website Named Desire poster is to represent the complexity of web design. Simplifying the poster would destroy the entire message!

zoe dune zoe dune said on Apr 14, 2010

Yes, well said! I''ve been pondering these exact thoughts after listening to ''experts'' and their theories on social networking, combined with the mix mash of mass media and politics. It''s to the point!

An expert An expert said on Apr 14, 2010

Even I agree :)

Harlequin Harlequin said on Apr 15, 2010

Is there a milling list to get info on when that poster comes out? :)

Joe said on Apr 15, 2010

I dig the poster.

Thomas Lewis Thomas Lewis said on Apr 15, 2010

Rule 76: Kill your idols (experts).

Nishant Kothary Nishant Kothary said on Apr 16, 2010

@Harlequin—Follow @mixonline on twitter and we''ll be notifying everyone in the near future :)

MGant MGant said on May 11, 2010

One of my favorite authors and commentators, Thomas Sowell has just published a book on this subject.

Society has been taught to view intellectuals as experts when the truth is the opposite.

Real experts walk the walk. They suffer the results of their mistakes and pass on the lessons learned. In fact, because they have made mistakes, many don''t consider themselves experts.

Intellectuals just talk. They may know everything about a subject, but have never actually experienced it. They don''t put their ideas into practice so never learn from the results. They have no common sense.

Dr. Sowell''s book gives example after example of the disasters that have resulted from implementing untested ideas from intellectuals.

Nishant Nishant said on May 11, 2010

@MGant—Great clarification. It seems that we have intellectuals parading around as experts in our society and I think they''re the ones I''m referring to. They''re usually folks who lack the humility to admit their mistakes or at least learn from them.

Speaking of Thomas Sowell, I actually picked up "Intellectuals and Society" at Borders a while back and ended up reading a couple of chapters just standing there. I even made a note to buy the book on my phone, but then forgot about the note. Thanks for the unintended reminder. I look forward to reading it.

Nishant Nishant said on May 11, 2010

@MGant—Great clarification. It seems that we have intellectuals parading around as experts in our society and I think they''re the ones I''m referring to. They''re usually folks who lack the humility to admit their mistakes or at least learn from them.

Speaking of Thomas Sowell, I actually picked up "Intellectuals and Society" at Borders a while back and ended up reading a couple of chapters just standing there. I even made a note to buy the book on my phone, but then forgot about the note. Thanks for the unintended reminder. I look forward to reading it.

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