I had a suspicion that Victor Navasky, now editor of the Nation magazine, would someday revert back to satiric days of the early ’60s when he ran the Monocle-then America’s only publication of political satire. Victor is starting something called “The Institute of Expertology” whose first mission is to write a book called “The Experts Speak,” a compendium of failed expertise through the ages. Only he wants you to help write it by sending examples of failed expertise to his institute at 146 East 62nd St., New York, N.Y., 10021.
Just incase you do not quite get the idea of the book, he supplies some of his research for stimulation: —”Space travel is utter bilge,” (Dr. Richard van der Riet Wooly, astronomer royal of England, 1956) – -“With regard to electric light, much has been said for and against it, but I think I may say without fear of contradiction that when the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it.” (Prof. Erasmus Wilson, Oxford University, 1978)
—”…it is highly unlikely that an airplane, or fleet of them, could ever successfully sink a fleet of Navy vessels under battle conditions.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, asst. secretary of the Navy, 1922)
—”We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out.” (Decca Recording Co., turning down the Beatles, 1962)
Most people remember statements that experts themselves wish they never made. More than 150 years ago, experts told Americans that Love Apples (tomatoes) were poisonous and should not be eaten. Scientists told us in the ’50s that the forthcoming atomic energy would be “too cheap to meter.” Reagan’s economic advisors blithely say that eliminating health and safety regulations would save money without even mentioning the life-saving and dollar benefits of these standards.
Presently, it is fair to say, experts are having a rough time—and largely because of other experts. On technical issues, experts with comparable degrees and credentials are lining up against one another and producing public skepticism that sometimes transforms into utter cynicism.
Nobel Prize winning physicists say that atomic energy is dangerous; other Nobel Prize winning physicists say that atomic energy is safe. Medical researchers say a food additive is harmful; other medical researchers say just the contrary. Economists say that Reagan’s tax cuts will produce more inflation and economic despair; other economists say that such cuts will boom the economy and productivity.
How can the public choose the wisest, most accurate advice? He are several rules of thumb:
First, who does the expert work for or have allegiance to? Or is the expert independent of such retainers or corporate affiliations? Drug companies and electric utilities usually retain experts who will agree with their corporate policy. These experts also find their salaries or retainers agreeable as well.
Second, are the experts reflecting their expertise or simply their judgments of acceptable risks (for instance, about workplace chemicals or dust levels)? If the latter is the case, they are no more experts than the victims. The acceptability of risks is a value judgment and has little to do with learned discourse on high-energy physics.
Third, how accurate in the past have been the various experts on both sides of a controversy? In Washington, for example, it is astonishing to see that an expert’s promotion and power are directly related to the power of the interest group he or she is defending or promoting, even if this expert proves to be wrong again and again. Defense cost analyst Ernie Fitsgerald lost his job at the Pentagon about 10 years ago because he was accurate in his claims about the C-5A airplane cost overrun. His superiors, who were wrong, were subsequently promoted.
Fourth, do the expert’s statements represent a conflict against his or her career or interest? When three established General Electric nuclear engineers quit and blew the whistle on the dangers of atomic energy, they spelled goodbye to their professional careers or many years standing. Clearly, they were speaking their own minds and beliefs.
Experts often are relied upon for prediction. Though their predictions are widely reported at the time, there is little follow-up later to see whether they came close to reality. One expert, Herman Kahn, makes a practice of predicting situations many decades in the future. This led economist John Kenneth Galbraith once to make this earnest plea: “Herman, come back into this century so we can judge you.”