Thursday, February 26, 2009

Experts, celebrities and the noise they make

Not everyone is smitten by celebrity or in awe of eminent experts and authorities, but the impulse to be that way is built into us. The natural tendency to obey authority is reinforced in a thousand ways by education and socialisation. You may disagree with me and say that the world is full of disobedient, undisciplined and unruly youth, but even the most uncontrollable group of children will obey an adult in an emergency situation such as a fire.

And so it is with leadership too: if you gain power and authority over other people for whatever reason and by whatever means, it soon feels perfectly natural and quickly becomes part of one's identity, with its own pleasures and subtle, addictive seductions.

At a primitive level (and let's admit it, most of us operate at a primitive level, even and perhaps especially the highly educated) this belief in authority means that we invest leaders with semi-magical properties. This can be seen in the ancient belief that the touch of the King could cure scrofulous disease. In more modern times it leads us to think that authority in one area of knowledge automatically spills over into others. Then there is celebrity culture where people are firstly famous for what are often trivial reasons but end up with the kind of authority and power more usually associated with politicians.

A friend of mine recently sent me a short movie of a whole lot of very well-known people talking about some burning issue of the day (Desmond Tutu, Robert Redford, Bono I think among others) — I forget the issue itself — but each person was filmed framing them in semi-profile, beautifully lit and from a position slightly below the celebrity's eye level. Because I'm a cranky and paranoid old curmudgeon, I found my warning antennae bristling and waving. The technique of filming, without intending to I'm sure, threw into very sharp relief the reflexive way we associate celebrity and authority in one field with a kind of universal wisdom transferable to others. Now here I will here confess that when I was a young person in my early twenties I was the archetypical arrogant prick who thought like that: the fact that I was one of the smarter kids in class meant I believed I was mentally superior in all ways to anyone who couldn't match my level of knowledge in my chosen specialities. Life and its accidents soon kicked that particular stupidity out of my system, because I didn't find myself picked up and carried along into some specialised and cosy little academic nook where my illusions could have been protected by obsequious underlings or students, but instead I had to make my way in the real world full of real people. And of course I discovered that wisdom and knowledge are more widely distributed than I'd thought.

So I received a kind of inoculation against certain types of false authority, especially those based on narrow expertise. This was later reinforced through a lot of exposure to academics, politicians, journalists, actors, artists and other semi-celebrities plus what may be termed the top end of town. My work for many years consisted in working with these kinds of people on various projects, some of a political nature and some to do with my business.

And of course the complexity of our society means very few people are generalists: most people are specialists, moving in circles of people who share their narrow speciality or perhaps crossing over into a few related fields. And outside of our speciality much of our knowledge of the world is a kind of metaknowledge: a whole lot of mental shorthand which helps us deal with the buzzing, blooming confusion around us but which is fatally flawed when place under strain. A great illustration of that is the complete confusion most people exhibit when they talk about investing and investments. Very few people understand what investment really means. I highly recommend that you go the the Archdruid's latest post, The Investment Delusion, for a wonderfully clear explanation of my point and which deserves to become a classic explanation of a subject much on the average Baby Boomer's mind these troubled days.

Anyway this post was inspired by reading Dmitri Orlov's latest offering, Of Swans and Turkeys, which of course refers to Nasim Taleb's great parables which I have reviewed earlier. Let me quote from Dmitri's post…

On Monday I was on Equal Time Radio with Carl Etnier, WDEV, Waterbury, Vermont. The other guest was the technological optimist William Halal, author of Technology's Promise: Expert Knowledge on the Transformation of Business and Society. Halal claims to be able predict the future of industrial civilization by talking to experts in different technology fields and then putting all of their predictions about their own fields together as a single map of things to come.

Dmitri knew there was something fundamentally wrong with this kind of thinking but couldn't put his finger on it properly at the time. His post is a detailed explanation of the expert fallacy and I highly recommend you read it as part of your own inoculation against nonsense.

Rich pickings this week!

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