Expert, shmerpert

Firenze © Natalia Martinez

As we know, I am a lover of TED talks, so I want to recommend one more. It’s a video by Noreema Hertz about the role that experts play in our decision-making.

From my own research and observations, I know that in this digital, interconnected age, a growing wedge of our purchasing behavior is being predicted by peer reviews or recommendations (virtual, in person, etc). But, it appears that the authority of experts is a long way from being undermined by these more pluralistic processes. Now, experts are not inherently bad and it would be mad silliness to ignore how much they do contribute, but Hertz’s point (and my own) is that the problem arises in that our society has substituted expert opinions for our own. In her words, “We’ve traded off our discomfort with uncertainty for the illusion of certainty that they (experts) provide.”

Personally, I was not surprised by her claims because I had encountered them before in the work of one of my college professors, Ellen Langer (all of whose books I highly recommend, despite the questionable fact that Jennifer Aniston will be playing her in an upcoming movie about her life! J ). Langer’s work has focused on the concept of ‘mindfulness’ and how we go through most of our lives in a mindless state of inattention; we don’t question, we don’t seek out explanations, we don’t wonder ‘why not?’ or ‘how come?’ anywhere near as often as we should. To a large extent, we’ve given up our impendent observation of the world because it is easier to rely on categorization and expert opinion – let someone else do some thinking and then tell us what is the best way to treat cancer, or nurture our bodies, or avoid a financial crisis…oh, wait… And that’s precisely the point: experts make mistakes, just like all of us. And, ironically, experts often ignore complexity and nuance and uphold the normative position or answer.  This is in part because experts – more often than not – are part of the establishment (in whatever field) and, from this position, usually face little diversity of opinion.

According to Hertz, the answer is to arm ourselves with questions and the courage to ask them, to not just take what is given to us and assume it is right because someone with a PhD said so. Now, I am not disparaging education or experience in the least and am a very ardent advocate of exposure to brilliant ideas, history’s lessons, etc….but I am arguing that we must think on our own and labor to channel the (at times meager) results of those thoughts into our decision-making. Hertz labels this as ‘encouraging managed dissent’ and she urges us to become comfortable enough with uncertainty to question panaceas and magic bullets when they are presented to us, even if the result will be a Pandora’s box of chaos or ‘I don’t know’s or silence. In my opinion, in the face of silence we should at least be comforted by the fact that it is the sound of us taking responsibility for ourselves.

And finally, in one of the lines that I found most impactful from her 20-minute lecture, Hertz stresses that we must not be afraid to recognize that “we gain knowledge not only from the creation of ideas, but also from their destruction.”


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