How to use experts — and when not to (TED Talk)

Noreena Hertz

The problem lies with us; we’ve become addicted to experts. We’ve become addicted to their certainty, their assuredness, their definitiveness, and in the process, we have ceded our responsibility, substituting our intellect and our intelligence for their supposed words of wisdom. We’ve surrendered our power, trading off our discomfort with uncertainty for the illusion of certainty that they provide.

This is no exaggeration. In a recent experiment, a group of adults had their brains scanned in an MRI machine as they were listening to experts speak. The results were quite extraordinary. As they listened to the experts’ voices, the independent decision-making parts of their brains switched off. It literally flat-lined. And they listened to whatever the experts said and took their advice, however right or wrong.

Super related to: Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles” (TED Talk)

And this moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see,but not necessarily what we need to see. As Eric Schmidt said, “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”

We humans have a tendency to opt for convenience and less thoughtful, more small-minded ways. It’s easier not to be in control, as long as what’s controlling you works reasonably well most of the time to keep things feeling the same and consistent. “Tendency” denotes something that we keep doing, often unwittingly or unthinkingly. This includes when it doesn’t work or when it’s the wrong thing to do. This is super related to “mistakes” discussed in Laurie Santos: A monkey economy as irrational as ours (TED talk):

Maybe it’s actually us that’s designed badly. what we see is that people tend to keep making errors exactly the same way, over and over again)

More from the original Noreena Hertz talk:

what my research has shown me is that experts tend on the whole to form very rigid camps, that within these camps, a dominant perspective emerges that often silences opposition, that experts move with the prevailing winds, often hero-worshipping their own gurus.

money talks — because we’ve all seen the evidence of pharmaceutical companies funding studies of drugs that conveniently leave out their worst side effects, or studies funded by food companies of their new products, massively exaggerating the health benefits of the products they’re about to bring by market. The study showed that food companies exaggerated typically seven times more than an independent study.

And we’ve also got to be aware that experts, of course, also make mistakes.

First, we’ve got to be ready and willing to take experts on and dispense with this notion of them as modern day apostles. This doesn’t mean having to get a Ph.D. in every single subject, you’ll be relieved to hear. But it does mean persisting in the face of their inevitable annoyance when, for example, we want them to explain things to us in language that we can actually understand.  You see, being ready to take experts on is about also being willing to dig behind their graphs, their equations, their forecasts, their prophecies, and being armed with the questions to do that — questions like: What are the assumptions that underpin this? What is the evidence upon which this is based? What has your investigation focused on? And what has it ignored? Being a rebel is about recognizing that experts’ assumptions and their methodologies can easily be flawed.

Second, we need to create the space for what I call managed dissent. If we are to shift paradigms, if we are to make breakthroughs, if we are to destroy myths, we need to create an environment in which expert ideas are battling it out, in which we’re bringing in new, diverse, discordant, heretical views into the discussion, fearlessly, in the knowledge that progress comes about, not only from the creation of ideas, but also from their destruction — and also from the knowledge that, by surrounding ourselves by divergent, discordant, heretical views, all the research now shows us that this actually makes us smarter. Encouraging dissent is a rebellious notion because it goes against our very instincts, which are to surround ourselves with opinions and advice that we already believe or want to be true.

We need to fundamentally redefine who it is that experts are. The conventional notion is that experts are people with advanced degrees, fancy titles, diplomas, best-selling books — high-status individuals. But just imagine if we were to junk this notion of expertise as some sort of elite cadre and instead embrace the notion of democratized expertise — whereby expertise was not just the preserve of surgeons and CEO’s, but also shop girls — yeah

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