Monday, March 20, 2017

Much in what he says …

… The suicide of expertise: Glenn Reynolds.

By its fruit the tree is known, and the tree of expertise hasn’t been doing well lately. As Nassim Taleb recently observed: “With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers.”


  1. Jeff Mauvais12:39 AM

    What have the experts done for us lately? Well, in 2016 two of my cousins were cleared of cancers - acute myelogenous leukemia and mantle cell lymphoma - that would have killed them as recently as fifteen years ago.

    Steve Jobs thought he was smarter than his oncologists, and his hubris killed him.

  2. Jeff Mauvais1:12 AM

    It's also clear that Mr. Reynolds either did not read Halberstam's book, or completely misunderstood what he read. The self-declared geniuses who brought us the Vietnam War were members of the managerial class, generalists who were dismissive of the true experts in the State Department, the country specialists who recognized that the war in Vietnam was a civil war and unlikely to result in a Communist sweep of Southeast Asia. The historical animosities between Vietnam and China, and between Vietnam and Cambodia, were much stronger than the transient effect of any ideology, and would keep Vietnam in check. And that's exactly what happened after the Americans left.

    And now we have Steve Bannon and Rex Tillerson, carbon copies of Walt Rostow and Robert McNamara, generalists who scorn the expertise of the people who work for them, and are certain that they know best.

  3. Who were those responsible for the current debacle throughout the Middle East?I am glad for your brother, but a whole bunch of physicians haven't managed to help my wife. We just get shunted from one specialist to the next.

  4. I also worked in the federal government once, and I definitely think it it has much bloat and redundancy. Most of what is worth doing is best done locally. The only problem, of course, is that we seem to have the worst political class ever.

  5. Jeff Mauvais11:24 PM

    I don't have a brother. You should show your commenters the courtesy of actually paying attention to what they write.

  6. Jeff Mauvais11:37 PM

    Scratch the comment above. It's a discourteous response itself.

  7. Jeff Mauvais1:29 AM

    I'm genuinely sorry that her physicians have not managed to help your wife, but I don't understand how their failure to cure her illness can be extrapolated to the conclusion that all experts are useless. Isn't that an example of the fallacy of hasty generalization?

    Reynolds' editorial is an example of the kind of facile, reflexive, ill-informed polemic - from all parts of the political spectrum - that is polluting our national discourse.

    As I mentioned earlier, the central narrative of Halberstam's book concerned the subordination of genuine experts by arrogant generalists who believed that corporate managerial experience was all that was required to solve every problem. Reynolds' account of the book is ass-backwards. The only question is whether he is twisting its meaning for ideological reasons, or simply didn't read it. Either is indefensible.

    Or consider his contention that the early post-war years provided us many fruits of expertise, but that the tree has grown barren over the past 50 years. Wrong, Glenn! Take one of his fruits - antibiotics. It's true that, between 1940 and the mid-sixties, sixteen classes of antibiotics comprising hundreds of different drugs were developed by pharmaceutical companies, but none were commercialized over the next 40 years. Is this because, as Reynolds would have it, the experts were suddenly stripped of their expertise by some kind of post-60's malaise? Of course not! Pharmaceutical companies stopped antibiotic R&D because the drug classes then available were completely sufficient to control any bacterial infection. Continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to develop products that no one needed would have been a certain route to bankruptcy. (Funny how a self-described libertarian like Reynolds seems clueless about how free-market economics actually works in the real world. No doubt a consequence of having spent his entire professional life on a college campus, producing nothing of real value - just thousands of additional lawyers.)

    When antibiotic-resistant bacteria started to become a problem in the early 1990's, the pharmaceutical companies began to ramp up antibiotic R&D again, and the first new class of antibiotics in almost 40 years, the oxazolidinones, was introduced in 2000. Since then, three new classes, each containing several different drugs, have been developed. This burst of activity is every bit as innovative as that in the 40's and 50's, contra Reynolds. In fact, at least one of these antibiotic classes targets the product of one of the 'master genes' whose relatively recent discovery I mentioned in a comment several weeks ago.

    Folks like Reynolds, too lazy to do their homework, need to be called out. For twelve years during my childhood, I spent a month or so every summer living on my grandfather's cattle ranch. Among the many things I learned was how to recognize the odor of bullshit from a great distance. Reynolds' piece reeks of it.

  8. It is not that all experts are useless. It is that expertise must be demonstrated, not merely asserted by means of credentials. Authority remains the weakest argument on behalf of anything, especially when the so-called experts take it upon themselves to predict the future. Not only was the commentariat on the whole wrong about the outcome of the recent election, but they continue to advance the same notions that were wrong then to explain what is going on now. It is why I am less and less inclined to pay much attention to any of it. Dietary guidelines the government has been peddling for decades have turned out in many cases to be wrong. Just a few years ago the London Independent had a headline telling its readers that they had probably seen the last of snow. Too many "experts" have taken on the role of soothsayers. Paul Krugman predicted the collapse of the stock market if Trump won. Well, I don't know about Krugman's, but my portfolio is looking pretty good. Reynolds was not dismissing all experts or all expertise. He was suggesting — and I think there is much evidence for this — that both can be exaggerated and overrated. People get paid for expert testimony in court. Do you think they might just tailor their testimony in any way? I do.

  9. Jeff Mauvais11:50 PM

    Anyone who tries to predict the future is a fool, expert or not. My argument is with those like Reynolds who ignore or alter facts in order to enhance some ideologically-driven narrative. In this case, he posits an imaginary 'golden age' of expertise so that he can embellish his denigration of today's experts through contrast. If your thesis is so weak that you feel the need to distort facts, then maybe you should rethink your thesis.

    This reminds me of those who, unsure of their standing on CO2 and global warming, resort to the claim that CO2 will enhance photosynthesis, resulting in a net benefit. Although controlled growth room tests do show a small, transient enhancement of photosynthesis in response to increased CO2, the effect disappears quickly and further increases actually damage the photosynthetic molecules. Moreover, in the real world, water is always the limiting resource. (I'll add here that I am an expert on the molecular and cell biology of photosynthesis.) I'm an agnostic about anthropogenic global warming because I don't believe having read even a dozen books on the subject brings me close to possessing any expertise. I am certain, however, that the questions surrounding global warming won't be answered by cutting research funding, as proposed by the new administration.

    My portfolio is also doing quite well. But I worry about those who have no savings and are counting on bogus promises to bring back jobs that no longer exist, jobs lost not to offshoring, but to automation and falling demand (regulation didn't kill coal, natural gas did). What does the future hold for them, and what does it hold for the rest of us once they realize they've been duped?