Expertise. Experts. Truth seeking.

Last time I've posted here was more than 2 years ago, late Feb. 2021 exactly. I'll dig into the why, how, 'what happened in between' in another post. Meanwhile, I find it quite funny to come back and pick up on the latest article published: Listen to the experts.

"So, I'm all in to listen to the experts but honestly, it's getting harder & harder to know who's one."

A few years later, I still stand by that conclusion above. Most of the time when I hear someone talking about something, I see my mind quickly going through these questions [pretty much in that specific order]:

  • what's the general atmosphere here? is it about finding the truth (or at least, approaching it)? or is it about being right? catching/ retaining attention? winning a fight? be perceived as the most knowledgeable/ likeable around the table? and so on... funny enough, I started to see more and more patterns around some specific setups. for instance: the more people around the table, the more likely people involved in the talking are chasing something else [than searching for truth]. for different reasons, I'd think the same with: the closest we are to the people around the table (here you can think: family reunions!).
  • what are the incentives at play? like this person ostensively trying to bring that other one home. or that one to highlight his/ her upcoming book, course etc...
  • last but not least: what are the characters involved? of course I find that one hard to grasp but at least, I try to keep 'scores' overtime. I know for sure now that some people can't say 'I don't know' ever.

More importantly about that last point: it might seem that entire 'classes of people/ jobs' are just unable to tell the truth (considering that 99% of the time, the only one truth is: 'I don't know'). I have politicians in mind of course but not only. Sometimes I wonder wether 'experts' are part of this tribe. Or wether we - the people - are just unable to hear the myriad of nuances, or just cope with the randomness, the uncertainty, and the depth of most of our world (universe!).

For the french readers here, I can't recommend enough this (very short - fanzine style) book from Etienne Klein: Le gout du vrai ['the desire for truth' in english]. It's been published quite recently and this is very well written. You can view it as an ode to the 'I don't know' answer. What triggered Etienne to write this book was a survey published by a big french newspaper [Le Parisien] right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic asking random people if they thought the 'chloroquine' was efficient or not against the coronavirus; while - of course - the clinical tests weren't done. 59% of the people answered 'yes, it is efficient'; 20% answered 'nope'; and only 21% answered 'I don't know'!

Do we want the truth after all? Are we even trying? Sure I've no doubt some people do. But if I'm being intellectually honest I wonder how small that group actually is. I can feel every time I'm in a group and someone is throwing something - anything - and I just come through an angle of 'oh really? wow that's very interesting. why would you say that? that's awesome, let's dig deeper altogether no? have you thought of this? have you checked XYZ? let's bring google in for a minute. and what about this instead?' well, most people find me truly annoying. And truth be told: I don't really know why.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the spectrum, there are kids. Mine are very young [less than 5 year-old young] but I can tell how refreshing it is to only embrace wonder; with no other agenda in the back. Like if we go through my 3 bullet-points above: (a) kids general atmosphere is always the same: pure curiosity (b) there isn't any other incentive than to learn something new - it's amazing. Even when some kids want more attention than others, they'd do it in asking more questions, louder, faster than the others but that's all - so, in regard to searching for truth, it's still on track (c) they have no problem saying 'I don't know' - quite the opposite actually.

So, since we've all been kids at one moment, let's assume we all went through this period of wonder, curiosity, desire for answers, journey towards truth. What happened then? When/ why/ how did we abruptly change?

Back to experts and expertise, that first sentence made me laugh: "There are good reasons to be sceptical of experts." I encourage you to go through the whole post: Are experts useless?

I agree with Sam's view at the end:

I think my overall view here is that there’s a common take that social science experts and experts aren’t really very insightful at all. This is an overcorrection. Yes, incentives in academia are a bit shit. Yes, some experts (and especially well-known experts) are bullshitters. And yes, experts probably aren’t always amazing at making predictions related to their field of study. But you can still get a lot out of reading social science research, it isn’t that hard to figure out which studies are likely to be bullshit, and people who are extremely good at making predictions rely on expert opinion all the time.


Objet du jour

Since it was raining heavily earlier today - like summer coming to an end - I had to take out of the closet my lifelong swedish yellow rain coat. Full story engraved for eternity with Objet.