Andrew Danos is an Australian businessman currently living in Israel. He has an MBA from Kellogg Business School and is a former adviser to The Hon. Kelly O’Dwyer MP. He is also the Honorary President of the Israel Paralympic Team. He has contributed this excellent thought piece to The F Rant.
A move away from logic
As the world gets ever smaller, problems that were once isolated geographically are now becoming global threats at record pace. Prior to international travel, it is possible that the Covid-19 virus may have never left the confines on China.
Also in a bygone era, the flow of information was primarily unidirectional. However, as the internet and social media have become a larger part of our lives, the sharing of information has also become omnidirectional. As a result, every member of the public has an opinion on the ‘topic de’jour’.
Anyone who has been on online in the past two months would have inevitably witnessed the majesty of at least two of their ‘online’ friends going ‘toe-to-toe’ in a ‘winner take all, fight to the death’ debate about who knows how to better solve both the virus crisis and the mounting economic crisis.
Just as ‘Godwin’s Law’ governs other online discussions, a new internet law has emerged, but this time it is a race to see who can type “are you an expert? no? then shut up!” the fastest. It is here that the problem starts to materialise.
Here are six articles quoting six different epidemiologists and health policy experts, all of whom are highly qualified, all of whom are from the most prestigious institutions in their field. Their credentials cannot be questioned. Yet all six have vastly different opinions on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Opinions range from ‘we should have never shut down’, to ‘we must remain shut for the next 12-18 months.’ (not in order of severity of response)
Herein lies the true dilemma; If the experts themselves have such a wide range of opinion, who are we, and decision-makers, supposed to listen to? Why do we value one expert’s opinion over another equally, if not more, qualified expert’s opinion? Why do leaders make tectonic decisions, like shutting down entire economies, when there is such an array of opinions and options to choose from?
Of course, these challenges are not exclusive to world leaders. We, as individuals, have to make decisions based on experts’ opinions all the time.
Take for example an incidental enchondroma finding on an X-ray; a benign tumour of the bone, that has a very small chance of becoming cancerous. One expert says to have it surgically removed, the other says the risks and pain of surgery outweigh the chance of cancer. Which expert to do you listen to? Both are equally qualified, and both have diametrically opposed recommendations. If the tumour never becomes malignant the latter was correct but if it does the former was.
Or you are sitting in the boardroom and you have briefed two consultancy firms to create a strategic expansion plan. Both firms are highly regarded, both employ brilliant minds, and both come up with what to seem to be coherent strategies and yet point the company in very different directions. Which one do you adopt, if at all? Which has the highest probability of success? Which option is the most logical?
It is here where the divergence from logic can occur.
The father of logic and reason, Aristotle, created the theory of “Syllogism”, that states:
The premise of the argument being the “things supposed” and the conclusion is what “results of necessity”.
For example, X ‘results of necessity’ from Y and Z if it would be impossible for X to be false when Y and Z are true and therefore the argument is validated
In layman’s terms, in order to accept what is logical, there are things that are simply true.
Using X,Y, and Z again; a dog (X) is a dog because two other dogs (Y and Z) gave birth to it. It is impossible for X to be a cat if Y and Z were dogs. This is a very basic example and one doesn’t need to be a veterinarian to know the difference between a cat and dog.
However, the same notion applies to far more complex concepts. Today, one does not need to be an astrophysicist to understand that it is logical that the earth rotates around the sun. Equally, one does not have to have graduated from Harvard Medical School to understand that smoking black tar into your lungs is bad for your health. As knowledge and experience accumulate, complex concepts become more simple and logical.
The discovery of quantum mechanics has meant that modern thinkers have developed these theories further, however, most will still agree with Aristotle’s basic concepts of truth and logic.
So how to do we know which expert speaks ‘the truth’ and is ‘logical’?
A vital consideration when deciding which experts to listen to is understanding exactly what the desired outcome is, while at the same time factoring in all the consequences that result from taking a particular course of action.
To use the current crisis as an example, if the only desired goal was to reduce the number of cases and deaths from the virus to zero, one would follow the advice of the expert epidemiologists recommending that we should be shut down indefinitely until there is a vaccine, ignoring the mental and physical health impacts of a deep depression. Conversely, if your sole objective is the preservation of the economy, one would listen to the most laissez-faire economist. But life is complex, it does not exist in a vacuum. Every action has consequences, even if they are not immediate. One cannot make decisions on the former without having impacts on the latter.
Therefore, there is an argument to say that when seeking advice from experts on a complex issue, it better to seek the advice of someone who has knowledge in a few areas, or a ‘generalist’, rather than someone whose expertise lies in a very specific narrow field. This concept is explored in more detail in David Epstein’s book ‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.’
The ‘elephant in the room’ in this discussion is the ability of humans to accurately predict what will happen in the future, even with advanced computer modelling. After all, the experts mentioned at the beginning of the article were all using complexing modelling of their own, yet arrived at wildly different conclusions.
The most in-depth analysis of predictions by experts was conducted by political scientist Phillip E. Tetlock spanning 20 years and published in his book ‘Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? The study analysed 82,361 predictions from 284 experts that averaged 12 years experience in their fields. The study uncovered some incredible results. For events that were defined as impossible or nearly impossible, 15% of them eventuated and when an event was considered a “sure thing” over 25% of them did not occur. Overall the experts got their predictions right less than 33% of the time. In other words, if you had a choice between two expert opinions, you would have a better chance by flipping a coin.
Given the poor ability of even the experts to predict the future, other methods are employed to influence the debate. The most common retort is “we must agree with the consensus”. However, the most basic research will uncover that history is riddled with examples of where the consensus was proven to be either wrong or morally reprehensible over time; doctors originally promoting smoking and slavery come to mind. Just like we look back at our ancestors and say “how could they have possibly thought that?”, it is just as guaranteed that our descendants will look back at us with the same puzzlement. So regardless of consensus, we must again default to logic.
It is now clear that the culture of “just listen to the experts” has its flaws. However, in addition, there is a less transparent but equally concerning element to this movement. That is the further departure from free thought. To simply rely on the expert is to acquiesce one’s own thought process to that of someone else.
The acquiescence of one’s thought process to an expert is ok when the impact of the decision being made only affects the decision-maker. After all, you are ultimately responsible for you. But what happens when the decisions one makes affects others, even millions of others, such as closing down entire economies? When the small business owner loses everything they have built up over 40 years because a government has told everyone they need to stay home based on an individual expert’s opinion?
All of this is not to say that we must ignore the experts, or that we should do away with expertise. On the contrary, we must never give on up on the pursuit of knowledge. Rather, we must be ever vigilant when deciphering the world around us. There has got to be a far more nuanced and sophisticated approach to listening to the experts that employs constant and consistent questioning and scepticism. After all, scepticism is the basis of scientific endeavour, and what is scepticism other than thinking for ones-self? Or in the words of Einstein, “the unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
So when someone next confronts you with “are you an expert? no? then shut up!”, simply reply with “no, I am not an expert, but I know how to think for myself and apply logic.”
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