Once again, there is a discussion spanning multiple disciplines that requires attention regarding the importance and relevance of experience.
In the 2008 US Presidential Election, we have a three-way battle over who is more experienced.Does Hillary Clinton’s presence in the White House as first lady make her more experienced than the junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama?Or does Obama’s longer legislative history, including time in Illinois’ State House, trump Hillary’s relatively new presence in the Senate?Does John McCain’s status as a former-Prisoner of War and as a Naval Aviator make him more experienced to be Commander-in-Chief? The popular electoral vote tracking site Electoral Vote has an interesting comparison, summing up the years of elected political service by all of the Presidents of the United States and graphing them along with the a summation of ratings as ranked by a numerous historians (some more rankings can be found via Wikipedia).The non-scientific finding was that the Presidents rated higher were also those with fewer years of elected experience.(Side note, it would be interested to see what the chart would look like if the ‘experts’ were with the amateurs from the various non-expert polls.(Likewise, I would like to see a comparison with Military service and rank, age, or experience, and maybe some economic and quality-of-life metrics as well).
This conversation goes further with internet-curmudgeon, open culture naysayer, and rhetorical-bomb thrower Andrew Keen’s (discussed previously) recurring lament that the lack of experts on the internet and the reliance on crowdsourcing have led to sloppiness and mistakes (ironically illustrated by Keen’s failure to rebut and subsequent ‘rebutting’ of Lawrence Lessig), all framed by a horribly simplistic article in Newsweek, which has had the blogosphere rumbling.
There’s no doubt that experiential learnings have a benefit in certain circumstances, particularly in environments that are static and require technological (from a mastery of that particular domain, not necessarily one involving technology) expertise.Examples of this might be engineers, doctors, or lawyers.But with experienced people, what happens when they encounter the unexpected?
The more-correct answer to the expert and non-expert question is not a matter of either or, but rather one of ‘both’.The fresh perspective and lack of institutional bias makes the opinion of the amateur relevant, particularly as they bring outside learning into the mix.This experiential (or referential) diversity manifests itself often these days, via business and technological collaborations, culture jammers, and cross-functional teams.The sum of the two differing parts in a working system is greater than the whole, and most certainly greater than two of each part.
Remember that ‘experts’ planned the war inIraq.Experts managed our National Security pre-9/11.Experts managed the launch of the Challenger and the landing of theColumbia.Right now, experts are managing our economy.The biases of those same experts are sometimes the factor that causes the crisis, or at the very least stalls a solution or exacerbates the effects.
As discussed in this Social Psychology paper on [Government Policy] Think-Tanks from CornellUniversity[PDF] discussed on the Monkey Cage, there are also social and psychological pressures for conformity in institutions as well as pressures for the individual to distinguish themselves amongst their peers by taking contrarian stakes with their peers, at the cost of the scholarship of their work.This personal reputation entrepreneurship is often camouflaged behind the expertise of both the individual and the institution, thus masking any biases.
The biggest problem with experts is their overconfidence of their ‘knowns’.You may recall the following bit of Rumsfeldian-slash-beat-poet observation:
As such, the planners of the Iraqwar felt that once we delivered the Iraqi people, we would be “greeted as liberators , based on their ideology and referential experiences with democracy.Those same planners were absolutely convinced post Gulf War I that the next threats to America would come from a revitalized Germany and Japan (circa 1992) and later China (I feel that they are right about this one, but they actually advocated confrontation as early as the late-1990s).Experts were in the control rooms of bothThree-MileIsland andChernobyl.The planners of our National Security pre-9/11 thought that the safeguards that were in place were sufficient to keep us safe, and that “no one could have anticipated airplanes used as weapons .The experts deciding on the launch of the Challenger thought that the O-Rings on the Challenger would be fine for launch, despite the freezing temperature, and the engineers and NASA and Lockheed thought that the risk of foam breaking of the shuttle’s fuel tank was negligible and posed little threat to the orbiter.The experts in the banking industry said their mortgage investments were sound; the experts in theHomeBuilding and Real Estate industry maintained that there was no Housing Bubble.Eliot Spitzer thought he knew enough about the political and financial systems that he could enjoy the company of high-priced hookers and escape controversy.Military planners were convinced of a ‘bomber-gap’ from the Eisenhower era through the end of the Cold War.
Experts may occasionally feel that their mastery of the known-knowns and known-unknowns, in concert with the possible discoveries of unknown knowns, offset any threats presented by unknown-knowns.This may be true, except when there is insufficient, biased, misleading, overwhelming, or non-conforming data.The holes in that data is then plugged in with observations and perspectives filtered through that same experience, sometimes with disastrous results, as seen above.Sadly, there is often little accountability or effect on the reputations of these ‘experts’, as the failings are blamed on the missing data, and note for the experts’ failure to account for the unknown-unknowns.
The last great problem with experts is their failure to adequately recognize their own limitations.In fact, they are far more likely to overestimate their own competencies, opening up even more opportunities to introduce their cognitive biases into the decision making process.For example, unfunny people tell jokes yet rate themselves as funny.
None of this is to say that the expert should be banished, or that the summed wisdom of crowds is greater than that of the experts.Consider the current boom of conspiracy theories by amateurs working from limited information.They too are plugging gaps in their knowledge bases, and (hopefully) coming to inaccurate conclusions. But the diversity of experience of the many can still compensate for the concentrated experience of the few when confronted with a complex system.