The Death Of Expertise

Thoughts from Glenn Reynolds:

In the realm of foreign affairs, which should be of special interest to the people at Foreign Affairs, recent history has been particularly dreadful. Experts failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, failed to deal especially well with that fall when it took place, and then failed to deal with the rise of Islamic terrorism that led to the 9/11 attacks. Post 9/11, experts botched the reconstruction of Iraq, then botched it again with a premature pullout.

On Syria, experts in Barack Obama’s administration produced a policy that led to countless deaths, millions of refugees flooding Europe, a new haven for Islamic terrorists, and the upending of established power relations in the mideast. In Libya, the experts urged a war, waged without the approval of Congress, to topple strongman Moammar Gadhafi, only to see — again — countless deaths, huge numbers of refugees and another haven for Islamist terror.

It was experts who brought us the housing bubble and the subprime crisis. It was experts who botched the Obamacare rollout. And, of course, the experts didn’t see Brexit coming, and seem to have responded mostly with injured pride and assaults on the intelligence of the electorate, rather than with constructive solutions.

By its fruit the tree is known, and the tree of expertise hasn’t been doing well lately. As Nassim Taleb recently observed: “With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers.”

There was also the failure of the CIA to see the Iranian revolution coming. And certainly the “experts” in charge of space policy haven’t been covering themselves in glory, at least if the goal is to expand humanity’s economic sphere into the solar system (as Marburger once said).

7 thoughts on “The Death Of Expertise”

  1. I continue to believe that expert failure is not by chance. Strings are being pulled. What is not certain is for what purpose and by whom?

    It could of course just be arrogance which there is plenty of evidence, but in that case you’d expect the result to be more random.

    1. I think most of the error can be explained in two parts. First, conflicts of interest between those of the expert and those people who would be interested in the predictions and whatnot. Second, experts are cheap to buy. I don’t think it requires any deep conspiracy. Moving on, incompetence and arrogance would be below that.

      For example, the Obama administration would have a bunch of experts on payload to rationalize whatever deeds or interpretations the administration favored at the moment. The CBO (Congressional Budget Office) is an institutionalized rationalization engine for Congress. Every special interest can afford their own experts and so on.

  2. I heard of a specific case that may have a more general application. It was stated that the number of computer programmers doubles every five years meaning at any given time half the programmers in the world lack experience and make the same mistakes that were solved years (decades/generations) earlier.

    My observation is that programmers aren’t trained, instead they have a way of thinking that can’t be formally taught. It is a trade that needs an apprenticeship model except most of the mentors don’t have a clue either.

    Years ago I noticed that CS professors were telling why goto is bad and getting it completely wrong by creating structures that could branch to arbitrary labels not realizing it’s not the jump but the landing that makes them problematical… and these guys are teaching the next generation.

    1. The information is out there for anyone who cares to read about it. It just isn’t taught at schools. Fred Brook’s “Mythical Man-Month” for example is an excellent resource. In a way it’s a lot easier to learn programming today than it was at one point. There is a lot of open-source software you can read and modify online.

    2. Computer science is misnamed. The only “science” part of it is the quantum physics involved – particularly the quantum tunneling effect that allows transistors to work.

      Computer programming is an art.

      1. It’s both an art and a science. There is a reason why we often make analogies to architecture in the physical world.

  3. The thing with “experts” Rand is that there are a lot of them around to choose. Also the article seems to point at previous successes developing technology and it’s comparing it with current “social sciences” and political analysts. Well… what did he expect really.

    FWIW I was against the war on Libya back when it happened. It was plain to see the end result back then. Plus I remember a lot of people being against propping up anti-Assad forces in Syria. I mean after what happened in Egypt what did they really expect? We’re lucky Egypt didn’t end up worse than it did and the military regained control there.

    I don’t blame the Obama administration for Libya or Syria though. IMO the intervention in Libya was an idiotic attempt by EU leaders to show their weapon systems in action to sell them abroad. The French Rafale being an infamous case in point of this. Heck I remember the rebels on TV with G36 rifles which the Germans later claimed were stolen from Libyan stocks. Plain blatant lies. Lies as blatant as the lies of the Russians claiming the Donetsk PR got their T-64, T-72, and Buk SAMs from Ukrainian stocks… The mess in Syria on the other hand can be squarely attributed to the Persian Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia and Israel. If anything it seems to me the US Administration followed those two events rather than actually provoking them.

    There’s plenty of blame to attribute to the US Administration elsewhere though like the situation in Egypt (which thankfully resolved itself) and perhaps Ukraine although I highly suspect there was EU intervention there as well. The Ukranian situation was never explained properly and it’s quite clear the coup was fabricated. Ukraine is basically being used as a ball in a proxy war between NATO and Russia. A situation which seems particularly repulsive to me.

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