Nicholas Kristof, in an op-ed piece (p. A23) in the NYT on 26 March, “Learning How to Think”, attacks appeals to “experts”, citing a 2005 study by Philip Tetlock of experts’ forecasts on economic matters that concluded:

The predictions of experts were, on the average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

Though Tetlock’s findings were unsurprising to me, I was dismayed at the way Kristof framed the discussion, as a denunciation of “experts” and “expertise”. Dismayed because I’ve become accustomed to having people dismiss what I (and my colleagues) say about language, in particular grammar and usage in English, as tainted because I’m an “expert”, and therefore in some way prejudiced. This is especially galling because because one of the messages of many technical disciplines (of which linguistics is one) is

Some things you are sure are true are significantly mistaken.

So slamming “experts” and “expertise” is a way of buttressing folk wisdom in these matters. Pointy-headed self-aggrandizing “intellectuals”!

Yes, I know, Kristof is undercutting one set of “experts”, people who propose to predict the future. Lord knows, such people are sitting ducks, especially in financial matters (though I believe they do better in some other domains), and it’s scarcely a surprise that so many of them get it wrong.

Other “experts” offer aesthetic judgments — for Beethoven, against Beethoven, for Mendelssohn, against Mendelssohn, and so on — and still others exhibit competence in diagnosis and treatment (such experts are often called specialists); garages might have a transmissions expert/specialist, in the same way that a medical practice might have an infectious diseases expert/specialist), and stlll others simply possess extensive knowledge about some domain (medieval Bulgarian, the life history of the liver fluke, prime numbers, whatever).

The links between these different sorts of expert/expertise are tenuous, though not negligible. Meanings radiate in different directions from earlier meanings, but the (phonological/orthographic shapes of the) words remain. The result is the mildly Whorfian one that people are inclined to view the different meanings as subtypes of a single meaning, just because they are manifested in the same phonological/orthographic shapes. So experts of one sort are tainted with the misdeeds of another.

[Fo some years, I’ve had a piece in preparation on the uses of cheat — cheat on an exam, cheat on your taxes, cheat on your spouse, and so on, all extensions, in different directions, from an earlier sense of cheat ‘seize’. Though these different uses have little to do objectively with one another — by the way, if you want to dispute this point, you have to do it without using the verb cheat, of course — the fact that modern English uses a single word for these different situations inclines people to think that the situations are really “the same”. People in another culture, speaking another language, might well be baffled by this idea.

Note that I’m not saying that current speakers of English can’t differentiate the situations, only that they’re disinclined to, so differentiation takes some work. That’s the “mildly Whorfian” idea I mentioned above.]

4 Responses to “Experts”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Feeling a sense of challenge about the different senses of “cheat” (you did set rules for doing so) I’m going to foolhardily attempt it. My own sense is that to cheat on ones spouse, cheat on an exam and cheat on taxes are all related (though not identical.)

    I feel that all of them have some general sense of rules that are supposed to be followed and a (dishonest) breaking of them that the agent wants to keep hidden from relevant persons. This works best for cheating on an exam, hw, etc and next best for taxes (where it is law rather than rules being broken.) And my feeling (I haven’t checked the OED) had been that “cheating on ones spouse” was a metaphorical extension with the “rules” being social expectations of fidelity.

    My definition, of course, would include a lot of other things that aren’t called cheating, but necessary and sufficient conditions seem elusive in making definitions.

  2. Sili Says:

    The difficulties of predicting the future seems, indeed, to be one of the most common attacks on climatologists.

    I’m not gonna argue about “cheat”, only link to an example — third example

  3. Why are we doing this KM thing? « Enlightened tradition Says:

    […] I read two blog posts about experts over the weekend. The first was Arnold Zwicky bringing some linguistic sanity to counter fevered journalistic criticism of ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’. […]

  4. Paul Wilkins Says:

    Does this beg the question of whether folks wisdom is preferable to book lernin’? The Kristof critique on experts seems to me the (dishonest) tactic of using a thought-ending cliche to prove a point.

    Would he figure that a thousand monkey pecking away for a thousand years on a thousand IBM Seletrics would accurately hack out the code for Sim Universe, a complete foretelling of the rest of history as well as the complete works of Shakespeare? If yes, then I posit that he is one of those monkeys…

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