This site contains a free book, So-Called Experts, by Stephan Michelson. That’s Dr. Stephan Michelson, PhD, if you care; but what much of this book is about is that you shouldn’t. You can read chapters here, online, or download them in pdf form. There are sixteen chapters, plus an Introduction, over 200,000 words. And graphics. It is a large book.
What is this book about?
At one time, either in truth or in American mythology, as we grew up we learned how society functioned, both in its rules and decisions, but more importantly for this book, in producing and using its goods and services. Childhood served as an apprenticeship for adult life. We learned some things at school, but we learned how to grow and pick soy beans and cotton, how to herd cows, how to cook and make clothes, from our families. Sure, there were jobs, some requiring additional schooling, some requiring specialized training. There were many decisions to make, but among family and friends we learned how to make them.
As the world changed—by urbanization, industrialization, electrification, the internet—it became more complex. Knowledge became specialized. No one could learn it all. There was the high school guidance counselor who knew about colleges we had never heard of; our doctor sent us to specialists to discuss maladies we did not know; we could no longer even repair our own automobile. We called people who had esoteric knowledge “specialists.” Some of these specialists knew how to do things we could not. Most knew what they had learned in school or in practice. We began to understand that there was an even higher level of knowledge, attained by people we came to call “experts.”
The first thing this book is about is that we rely on “experts” all the time. Is this shoe better made than that one? Is this house defective? How do I “invest”? Newspapers carry reviews of products by “experts” who tell us things about those products the manufacturer never would. Consumer Reports recognized early that we, the public, could not assess all the choices we faced without expert help. Magazines and other media provide “expert advice” on cooking, investing, travel. Whatever we do there is an “expert” service waiting to help us do it.
Which leads to the second thing this book is about: How good are these “experts”? Is “expert” a marketing title, or a deserved characterization? In field after field, much of the “information” one is given is wrong. “Experts” all too often spout some conventional “wisdom,” information they know most people do not have, but they do not know is often incorrect or inappropriate. The government revises its “food pyramid” every five years because the previous one, they now say, was wrong. Which is what others, real experts, told us at the time.
These two points lead to the third, which is really a question: How do we determine who is an expert in whatever field we are seeking one? Or, to be less binary, how do we determine how expert a so-called expert is, and whether that is expert enough to help us?
Are the people who claim to be looking for expertise in a subject really doing so? When there are congressional hearings, so representatives and senators can learn (as we would have to) about issues that are otherwise outside their range of experience, do they call in experts to advise them? When your attorney says that, in trial, you will need an expert witness, does that attorney then have a plan by which he finds an expert, or only a witness? When you read an “expert advice” column, why do you think the advice is truly expert?
It turns out that many supposed searches for experts are inexpertly done, either because the search for an expert is not itself expertly performed, or because the search is not for an expert, but for support for a pre-ordained position. This opens the gate for so-called experts, people with credentials who will say what someone with a checkbook wants to hear.
Credentials do not assure expertise. This book contains many stories of credentialed, selected people who were wrong—knowably wrong. Inexpert. People who know the “conventional wisdom,” who earn straight A’s on multiple choice tests, may have knowledge, but do they have expertise? The true expert might be the person waging war on that conventional knowledge. This book presents examples of just that, the outsider shunned by those who seem to be knowledge leaders, but is the real expert.
How did this book come about?
Stephan Michelson discovered his “calling” as a statistical analyst in litigation while on the faculty of Harvard University. That story is told at www.LongbranchResearch.com. There was an articulated problem, a framework (the law and court precedents) within which to work, a decision-maker, a decision. It was clear what information the judge needed, and what analytical tools were required to provide and present that information.
As Michelson “won” case after case, something else became clear: Most analysts on the other side were not very good. Indeed, most started with the conclusion they were hired to find, and so did not approach their task as that of investigation. It was more to convince the judge that their client was right, whether that was true or not.
Michelson has been a statistical analyst in litigation for close to 50 years. This book has been in the works for fifteen. It took some time for Michelson’s view to enlarge from litigation to, well, to everything. He first wrote a book explaining in some detail why other litigation experts got it wrong. [See The Expert (2006), also available at LongbranchResearch.com.] But it became apparent that more general issues could be approached the same way.
Michelson found, in his own life, many poseurs. The people who took off the roof of his Takoma Park home seemed unable to build up one vertical level, which was their job. It looked askew. It was. The Toyota repair facility never did fix certain items on his car. One handy man could not figure out how to install a two-way switch that did not blow a fuse—not telling Michelson until the walls had been sheetrocked and painted. In place after place in which Michelson looked for expertise, he realized he was being falsely told he had found it.
Although grounded in Michelson’s experience in courts, where the word “expert” is often mis-applied, this book takes his skeptical point of view into many other areas. He finds that reviewers of chair designs do not say whether a chair is comfortable to sit in. Architecture reviewers fail to consider a building’s context. Reviewers of water kettles do not observe when a user may be burned just opening the lid. In the chapter on health, Michelson reports a study he did to determine by how much the medicine his doctor prescribed reduced his blood pressure. To decide whether to take the drug, one should weigh the severity and probability of side effects against the drug’s benefits. Yet, when he presented a measure of the benefit to his doctor, and asked if that was large or not, he got no response. It takes credentials to be able to write a prescription. It takes expertise to know if one should.
This exploration into expertise—how to find it, how to use it—led to seeing that people do have ways to solve these problems. Brands can be seen this way. You shop certain brands of products because you have determined that they reflect a level of expertise that you want. You shop in certain stores because you find that they have pre-selected the range of products among which you want to choose. You cannot try every brand of sardines, so you take a shortcut and only buy sardines from Portugal. You buy olive oil from Greece. You purchase only grass-fed beef not because you have read all the research literature, but because you need to make decisions and get on with life. We make many decisions on a broad level like that, trusting that the experts have figured out something important.
Sometimes they have. Sometimes so-called experts fail us. Sometimes they have been paid to. Sometimes they just aren’t very expert. The problem remains: We do not have the time or the skill to gather information behind every decision we will make. We have to find shortcuts. The most common shortcut is to rely on so-called experts.
Why is this book free?
It is a long story, not to be told here. It includes finding that one of those author assistant places, that presents itself as having the very expertise one needs to publish a book, does not have it. False advertising—what a surprise! How would one know? This site invites comments, a reason you might want to return here. Maybe we can develop expert-search expertise.
All of the chapters here are dated. Come back to this site to check. If the chapter’s date is different, it has been revised. It could be that one could charge for the book and provide the customer with access to password protected revisions. How long would that last before everyone knew the passwords that got them to the latest chapters? Why would an author want to keep his revisions secret?
Finally, there are two reasons people pose as experts. One is that they do not know that they are not. This has been true for most of the “experts” on the other side of litigation. Full professors of law, of economics, of statistics—and no doubt capable in their fields—many were not expert in solving the litigation puzzle. If people do not understand what true expertise is, they cannot know when they do not have it.
The other reason people claim expertise is to make money. Because Michelson lives his life as an expert, it is important that this site, this book, not be seen as a platform, as an assertion of his expertise. This book is, rather, an extended essay on how one person (with experience as an expert) sees this particular problem, individuals seeking but not getting the advice and help they need in fields in which they are strangers. The point of this book is to expose the universality of non-expertness, and to raise questions so others can approach so-called experts with skepticism. Of course one would like to make money at this endeavor, but not at the cost of anyone demeaning what is written here. The best way to demonstrate that this book was written for the intellectual joy of writing it, not for profit, is to give it away.