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At the Mercy of Experts

January 6, 2018

Without making direct reference to the turmoil in the executive branch of the US government, the whole situation in Washington makes for an interesting (if terrifying) experimental control for one of our baseline assumptions about the functioning of government, business, and society.

Does having experts in charge of things really lead to a better result?

Examining my own professional career, I have always made it a point to make myself an expert in whatever job I find myself. “Expert” would have seemed like a presumptuous word for the younger me, but after several entry-level jobs and over a decade as a trained business professional, I now realize that expert-level performance is simply what I have always recognized as learning my job.

When you spend even 20 hours a week doing the same thing, it behooves you to invest some effort in understanding what you’re doing–that standard has always existed as a given to me. Even now, after *incoherent mumbling* years in the workforce, it still shocks me when I see manifestations of the opposite standard. (Namely, “I’m only here to fill space and do what I’m instructed to do and not one thing more.”)

In some ways, I have more respect for slackers who explicitly don’t care whether the job is done than for people whose version of responsibility is to maintain a short-sighted checklist of duties that will keep them from getting fired. At least the slacker’s philosophy  is internally consistent. Maintaining the self-righteous air of “I’m doing my job”–and its dangerous corollary, “that’s not my job”–while not comprehending the import or context of your job, says to me that you’re only interested in checking the boxes, punching the clock, and going home. That’s not meaningful job ownership.

You can be useful in some work environments while checking the boxes. If you don’t poke your head out of the checkbox, however, you won’t be able to confirm whether that is the case.

So goes my philosophy of work. But have I made my various workplaces over the years better places to work? Have I made them more profitable? Have I made the world any better by being an expert?

Does the world work better with experts in charge?

On its face, this is a nonsensical question. An expert, by definition, is someone who understands how to do something better than someone who is not an expert. If you’re not adding value, you lose your expert label.

Looking just a little deeper into the definition of “expert,” you’ll find the disconnect that Republicans and anti-establishment types love to exploit.

(I did not want to inject politics into this discussion, but the irony of Republicans presenting as “anti-establishment” at this upside-down point in history is too delicious to not note in a parenthetical comment.)

I can be an accounting expert and walk into the door of your company and give you a bunch of expert accounting opinions that will sink your business. Also, I can be an expert in a highly speculative field, and I can just be wrong, even with all my expertise. Investment advisors would fall into this category.

So the two holes in the airtight loop of hiring experts to do jobs they’re experts at doing are: (1) experts’ guesses are no more likely to be right then anyone else’s; and (2) all expertise is not transferable, and some expertise is more transferable than others. I think it’s plausible to explain the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in these two points. Any attempt at a rational explanation of said election clearly has to revolve around the dismissal of expertise as a criterion for performing a job.

What of these two objections? The first is somewhat legitimate, and we can play battling statistics all day to defend or reject the ability of experts to predict the future. I’ll presume a concession–experts can’t reliably tell you what’s going to happen.

The second is pure evasion. If you want to undermine someone’s credibility,  under this argument, simply relabel their expertise as incompatible with the actual job at hand.

Going back to my personalized example, a business owner should not be operating his business based on out-of-context accounting guidance, and an expert accountant would not give unqualified advice that could sink a business he has not taken time to understand. Both parties compromise their expert status by allowing such an event to happen in the first place. An expert knows her place, and hiring experts know what experts to hire for which jobs. This is all built into the system of experts, if I may coin a concept.

The only nagging issue is that no one is an absolute expert. That poor business owner I walked in and bankrupted may have been an otherwise fully qualified expert with a weakness in his understanding of the exact role of an accountant.

Taken together, the only real issue with experts is that they aren’t perfect. The undermining of experts is usually the result of a double-standard. The standard for experts is, “You’re an expert; why did you make a mistake?” The standard for non-experts is, “Look, you got something accomplished! Who needs experts?” Such reasoning makes a 10% success rate for a non-expert superior to a 90% success rate for an expert.

And while experts can’t predict the future, they do know how to respond to unpredicted outcomes. Apart from ladies who wear headscarves and gaze into crystal balls, no one’s exclusive job is to tell you what’s going to happen in the future.

Not unsurprisingly, my conclusion is that the tautology holds. Hiring experts who know the most about how to do their jobs results in better outcomes.

As for me, I do not feel compelled to bore you by rationalizing my value to my current or former employers. I will instead rely on the preponderance of expert research that confirms the value of employees like me, doing what we do well. And a lot of anecdotal evidence that would bore you further.

It’s not really fun for either of us for me to try to prove a tautology. It’s even less fun to entertain toxic ideas that have been given credence by a bend-over-backwards approach to understanding and explaining what’s happened in the public sphere over the past couple of years.

But that’s just me. I’m no expert.

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