Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Use Experts

Noreena Hertz gives a passionate talk on how experts are fallible and how we, as a society, should develop a health mistrust of experts.

I have some gripes with the talk. In the opening lines, she makes us believe that we have always relied on experts to make decisions. This is not true. Relying on experts to make decisions is a fairly recent phenomenon. Take the decision on what to eat, for example. In most cultures, there are elaborate rules, rituals, traditions and folklore surrounding what to eat, when and how. It represents the collective knowledge and experience of a culture about a very important aspect of human life - eating food. Relying on nutritionists a fairly new phenomenon, a by product of the modern capitalist/consumerist culture.

Second, I do not think the problem lies with experts themselves. I think experts are often very aware of the assumptions that they make and the limitations of their methodologies. There is often ample dissent within an expert group, at least during the early stages of development of a field. Experts also know that they are only human and make mistakes all the time.

The problem doesn't lie with non-experts either. People are often inquisitive and cautious. They will always challenge authority whenever they feel empowered to do so.

The problem lies with communication. Experts opinions get to the public in pithy slogans. The media loves taglines - eating chocolate decreases risk of cancer, drinking coffee can help you live longer. Experts will seldom make claims like that. The media fails to deliver the nuances and the details of expert knowledge to the general public.

The communication problem also runs the other way round. In most cases, there is no mechanism for experts to listen to 'user' feedback. Experts are often working with limited eyes and ears. This is perhaps a folly on the part of experts. With the advances in communication technology, this shortcoming can perhaps be overcome.

See this great talk by Thomas Goetz about how to redesign medical data to better communicate with patients.

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