By David H. Freedman
Little Brown, 295 pages, $31.99
When we hear that someone is an expert - or even, less grandiosely, a professor, scientist, economist, or forecaster - if they are talking about their domain of interest, we usually assume they are right. But science and business journalist David Freedman suggests we might be better off to assume they are wrong.
His latest book is titled Wrong. It's an all-out assault on experts, and, perhaps more significantly, our mindsets, which give the experts more licence than they deserve.
Take medical journals, which normally have experts counter-checking the latest studies by other experts to make sure through peer review that the study is solid. But John Ioannidis, a doctor and researcher whose specialty is calculating the chances that a medical study's results are false - an expert, in a sense, on the wrongness of other experts - has found that two out of three times the studies are wrong. And that is the score just with the most prestigious medical publications, which maybe shouldn't surprise us because we are used to getting contradictory studies from them on things like wine or coffee's health implications.
More generally, Mr. Freedman says, "expert wisdom usually turns out to be at best highly contested and ephemeral and at worst flat-out wrong." In some ways, that's not totally surprising. Because for all our worshipping and fixation on experts, we are also often cynical about them. "If anything, we live in a time of acute frustration with experts, even as many of us remain dependent on them and continue to heed their advice," he adds.
The book takes readers through various ways that scientific studies can go wrong, from measuring what doesn't matter, to statistical flaws, to studying the wrong mammal (he points out how different rats really are from people, yet so many scientific studies are based on them as proxies for humans, even in psychology). And then there's deliberate bias, with researchers tossing out inconvenient data or otherwise shading their results to fit their need for noteworthy conclusions to keep their lab functioning or to conform with their ideological predispositions. If your career involves dealing with scientific studies, his two chapters on the trouble with scientists is likely required reading.
A key problem - and it shows up with consultants and other experts on organizations or workplace effectiveness - is what he calls the certainty principle. Given an expert who equivocates on some approach and an expert who is dramatically certain, we usually opt for the expert with conviction. He says that if a consultant offers us "138 things you might have to do to have some chance of partly achieving your goal, depending on which of the following 29 conditions best describe your situation," we instead will embrace the "seven habits" or "12 steps."
We want advice that's simple. We want it clear-cut, doubt-free, universal in application, upbeat, actionable, and palatable, in the sense of conforming to our predispositions rather than challenging those biases.
We're also suckers for dramatic claims. "Expert advice and findings are far more likely to capture our attention and get us rooting for them if they promise to make big, positive changes in our life," he notes. We also prefer advice presented in the form of stories. We have a zest for retroactive fixes, advice that helps us to lock the barn door after the horses are out (or fix investment bankers after they have dynamited our economy, if you prefer that analogy).
"We happen to be complex creatures living in a complex world, so why would we expect answers to any questions to be simple?" he asks, turning the problem, as you might note, from the nature of experts to the nature of our psyche. "In particular, the problems that lead us to turn to experts - how can we be healthy, wealthy and fulfilled; how can we get our businesses and nation to flourish - tend to be bound up in extraordinarily high levels of complexity."
Indeed, he notes that experts operate at the very boundary of the unanalyzable. They aren't tackling the easy stuff. That gives us a clue, he argues, to recognizing advice that's likely to be right, or at least on the right track:
"It will be complex, it will come with many qualifications, and it will be highly dependent on conditions. Because of the ifs, ands or buts, it will be difficult to act on. Because our beliefs tend to be simplistic and optimistic, it will probably be incompatible with them. In other words, good expert advice will be at odds with every aspect of the sort of advice that draws us to it."
The book is well written, and will shake you up, making you think twice about a lot that you read in books and newspapers, and perhaps encourage you to follow some of his guidelines when the next expert promises to fix your organization.
In Addition: Consultant Sam Silverstein believes that the difference between those who are triumphant in life and those who aren't is that successful people hold themselves accountable for their performance. In No Excuses (John Wiley, 182 pages, $29.95) he sets out five accountabilities that will give you a competitive advantage: Make sure your strategic intent is not wrong-headed; create space for new initiatives, ideas and projects; manage the process to achieve your strategic intent whatever the obstacles; set expectations that are appropriate; and contribute to the relationships that matter to you most. By holding yourself accountable to do those things well, you will outdo more lackadaisical competitors. The book is loosely written and uneven, but his main points are worthwhile, a nice framework for personal accountability and improvement.
Just In: Virgin founder Richard Branson's rollicking lessons of business and life, Screw It, Let's Do It (Virgin Books, 258 pages, $21.95), originally published in 2006, is back in pocketbook form.
Consultants Mark Stein and Lilith Christiansen show you how to get the most from your staff from Day One, improving productivity and retention, in Successful Onboarding (McGraw-Hill, 278 pages, $34.95).
Technology expert Charlene Li shows how social technology can transform the way you lead in Open Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 311 pages, $33.95). gratuitous