Walt Williams: Don’t Blindly Follow “Experts”

Walter Williams wrote an interesting article in January, pretty much warning that just because a person is an expert in one field, does not mean they are experts in every field. Essentially a lot of smart people throughout history have enjoyed making sweeping statements, and bold proclamations only to be 100% wrong, and look a bit ridiculous in hindsight. Walt started off the article with a few examples of what he was talking about.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a mathematician and scientist. Newton has to be the greatest and most influential scientist who has ever lived. He laid the foundation for classical mechanics, and his genius transformed our understanding of science, particularly in the areas of physics, mathematics and astronomy. What’s not widely known is that Newton spent most of his waking hours on alchemy; his experiments included trying to turn lead into gold. Though he wrote volumes on alchemy, after his death Britain’s Royal Society deemed that they were “not fit to be printed.”

Lord William Thomson Kelvin (1824-1907) was a Belfast-born British mathematical physicist and engineer. Kelvin’s major contribution was in thermodynamics, and he is widely recognized for determining the correct value of absolute zero, approximately minus 273 degrees Celsius. In his honor, absolute temperatures are expressed in Kelvin units. Being an expert in one field doesn’t spare one from being an arrogant amateur in others. Based on his knowledge of heat dissipation, Kelvin criticized geologists of his day and claimed that Earth was between 20 million and 100 million years old. Kelvin also said that “X-rays will prove to be a hoax,” but he changed his mind after he experienced an X-ray of his own hand. Kelvin also predicted, “I can state flatly that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

Even though Sir Isaac Newton laid the groundwork for much of what we know about science today, does not mean that we should still be trying to turn lead into gold. And just because Kelvin was smart enough to figure out where absolute zero was, does not mean he was smart enough to accurately predict that there would never be a flying machine heavier than air. So why is it that these days there seems to be so much confusion over the difference between being an expert in one area, versus being a genius about everything?

Warren Buffett is an expert on trading and investments; he is not an expert on organizing society. Bill Gates is an expert on building and marketing computers; he is not a political genius. Lots of Hollywood actors and actresses are really good at pretending to be someone they are not, including pretending to be experts on government. Many politicians are experts on how to make people like them for no reason, how to win elections, how to use propaganda, how to denigrate opponents, and how to gain power; they are terrible at running a responsible government of objective laws which promotes individual freedom.

The point is that we should not just listen to an expert, and blindly believe them. There is a difference between having a bank of knowledge and having critical thinking skills; you do not necessarily need a giant bank of knowledge about a subject to disagree with someone who does possess that immense knowledge, you just need critical thinking skills. I saw a meme that someone posted suggesting that it was ridiculous for “uneducated rednecks” to think that they know more about the constitution than the President, who was a constitutional law lecturer. The constitution is pretty clear, and I don’t think you need a degree on the subject to understand phrases such as “shall not be infringed”, “nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, or “The congress shall have the power to… declare war”. Don’t just believe experts simply because they are experts, after all, true education is knowing how to learn, not what to learn.

The take-home lesson is that experts are notoriously fallible outside of their fields of endeavor — and especially so when making predictions. There tends to be an inverse relationship between a predictor’s level of confidence and the accuracy of his prediction. Irving Fisher, a distinguished Yale University economics professor in 1929, predicted, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Three days later, the stock market crashed. In 1954, Dr. W.C. Heuper of the National Cancer Institute said, “If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943 allegedly said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” “(Research on the atomic bomb) is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.” That was Adm. William Leahy’s prediction in 1945.

The bottom line is that the fact that a person has academic degrees, honors and status is no reason for us to abandon our tools of critical thinking.

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