Think Critically About the Wisdom of Experts

by Andre A. King

Some lessons about assessing the claims of people whose opinions seem unassailable.

Expert analysis informs the decisions we make as leaders and managers — and in our everyday lives. We can’t see red blood cells, but we trust scientists who say we have them and doctors who order blood tests to count them. We suspect that cognitive biases affect our choices, not because we have done the analysis ourselves, but because we believe social scientists who conduct experimental research. Much of our knowledge is ultimately garnered from the testimony of teachers, mentors, colleagues, and authors who write for publications like this one.

But we also live in a world where, almost daily, some expert’s previous certainty is discredited by new analysis. Diets once thought to be foolproof are ridiculed; management practices once decried are suddenly praised. So how should we treat the next piece of advice we get from a scholar or a consultant?

Philosophers of science, who study this issue, generally recommend that we simply trust what we hear from well-credentialed people who seem competent and sincere. But I think we can do better. We should always think critically about what we hear or read. In my experience, “fresh eyes” often find errors that have eluded expert minds. We owe it to ourselves to handle each item of expertise the way we would a piece of fruit we’re about to buy — gauging how wholesome and ripe it is. Here are my thoughts on how to do that.

Dare to Doubt

In the second most popular TED  Talk of all time, social psychologist Amy Cuddy tells us that holding certain physical postures boosts our power hormones and makes us more courageous; however, attempts to replicate that result have failed. European governments chose to adopt austerity policies in part because esteemed Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff told them that high debt levels cause a sudden drop in economic growth.Then a graduate student, Thomas Herndon, discovered that their claim was influenced by an Excel spreadsheet error.

Experts fool themselves all the time, especially when a problem is messy and the analysis is difficult. The replication crisis — whereby scientific findings are increasingly being revealed as tough to reproduce — is plaguing psychology, economics, and medical research.


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