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Expert opinions

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It seems that the world is full of talking heads masquerading as experts. These pretenders pop-up following every breaking news story - from major incidences like terrorist attacks to routine events like interest rate hikes. The media feels compelled to call upon these “authorities” to act as instant experts and explain what has happened and why.

But these so-called pundits are often no more than self-proclaimed gurus. Indeed, they typically know little more than the rest of us. But put them in front of a microphone and these publicity seekers can’t resist asserting their opinions on subjects in which they have little or no formal training or expertise.

The Y2K computer bug is a classic example. While technology legend, Bill Gates, saw the millennium bug as a “minor inconvenience”, less qualified IT commentators promulgated doomsday scenarios and were aided in their deception by the media who spun compelling but inaccurate stories.

A gullible public bought into the outrageous predictions about planes falling from the sky and missiles self-launching. But the bug did not bite and the New Year passed with nothing more than the expected hangover. Those who foretold of a global computer apocalypse caused unnecessary panic but were never brought to account.

Nothing had changed by the time of the Fukushima power plant disaster in 2011. Yet again, the media wheeled out instant experts who hyperventilated over the very modest amounts of radioactive fallout. Fears about radiation contamination were clearly overblown but made for dramatic headlines which trumpeted the dangers of nuclear energy.

A report released five years after the disaster by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found that not one person had died because of the meltdown. Referencing the UNSCEAR Report, a Forbes magazine article stated:

No one will die from Fukushima radiation, there will be no increased cancer rates, the food supply is not contaminated, the ocean nearby is not contaminated, most of the people can move back into their homes, and most of the other nuclear plants in Japan can start up just fine.

Almost three years to the day after Fukushima, the world was gripped by the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777. The aircraft vanished without a trace, bringing a raft of know-it-alls out of the woodwork. They went into overdrive speculating about what may have happened to the plane.

Many of their theories were not supported by a shred of solid evidence. Nonetheless, their views were given air time by media outlets. This helped networks maintain rolling coverage of the tragedy and filled the huge gap in reliable information about the plane’s fate.

Suggestions from armchair sleuths, aviation experts and conspiracy theorists were broadcast. Fringe theories flourished and ranged from the sinister (electronic warfare), to the far-fetched (remote island landing) to the insane (abducted by aliens).

The above examples prove that it’s relatively easy for someone to claim to be an expert, but experts (real or imagined) get it wrong all the time. In his book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail - and Why We Believe Them Anyway, investigative journalist, Dan Gardner reveals the repeated and sometimes monumental failure of expert predictions in every field.

Gardner reveals that he’s “...always been fascinated in the way that experts are held up as gurus and taken so terribly seriously and when their predictions fail, people just shrug and walk away.” He argues that the average pundit is about as reliable as flipping a coin.

To support this view, Gardner draws on the work of Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Following extensive research, Tetlock discovered that experts’ predictions were no more precise than random guesses. Tetlock concluded that “…experts are about as accurate as dart-throwing monkeys”.

History is littered with examples of seers who got it wrong. Yet, as Gardner notes, the general public continues to put great faith in experts who never lose their widespread appeal. I’m with Gardner when he says that “…the future will forever be shrouded in darkness”.

Expert predictions fail because the world is complicated, yet our flawed quest for certainty continues. Only fools or geniuses try to predict the future - and I’m neither!

 

Regards
Paul J. Thomas, CEO

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CEO Paul Thomas