Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

About those experts…

with one comment

Disclaimer: This text started out in one place, saw a change of tack, and then evolved into something even more different. With the length of the text and the massive amount of writing that I have done this month (averaging a little more than one published text a day), I lack the energy to rewrite it to the level that might find expert (to stick with the theme) approval. I publish anyway to shrink that backlog just a little.

When I was a young teenager, I had an attitude to governance very similar to e.g. a modern day U.S. Democrat or other Big-Government proponent. The broad masses are stupid* and politics is the art of putting the right persons in charge, so that they can make wise decisions for all—an expert for everything and every expert in his place. The more than thirty years since have seen a gradual change of opinion, my last few illusions crushed by the behavior of “experts” during the COVID pandemic.

*Well, I got one thing right, but whether they are actually more stupid than those actually in charge is sometimes debatable.

While I have certainly not walked around with blinders for close to fifty years, the process was slower than it, with hindsight, should have been, and I always seemed to just exclude, sometimes unconsciously, a slice of society as non-experts, rather than to contemplate the whole of society. I discovered that most teachers were nothing to write home about during my school years, for instance, but I never viewed teachers as true experts (on pedagogy or whatnot)—specialists, yes; experts, no. When it came to individual fields of study, the first few teachers were generalist, and we had a series of single teachers teaching all subjects for the first six years of school, with a switch based on age group, not subject.* In contrast, I expected e.g. the professor of pedagogy, the minister of education, and a Ph.D. holder in an individual subject to have true expertise.

*Excepting some special cases, like wood-shop and music. Here and elsewhere, note that many references are to Sweden. The general claims are likely to hold internationally too, but the exact details might vary.

The next six years were better, with teachers who specialized in, usually, two subjects and had a correspondingly deeper knowledge, but they were still “only” teachers. When they failed to live up to my standards, and most did, I shrugged it off—even high-school teaching is, after all, not where you find your typical genius. Those who can do, do; those who can’t do, teach. (And two or three STEM teachers might have been outright good, if far from deserving a status as infallible policy makers, giving me some hope for the future.)

Time went by, and I saw disappointment after disappointment, e.g. in that most politicians were intellectual nobodies. (In my very late teens, I actually watched a few parliamentary debates in the hope of learning something. Well, I suppose that I did learn a thing or three, e.g. that parliamentary debates are horrifyingly boring, that politicians are poor at reasoning, and similar.) But, hey, politicians—they are elected because of popularity, not true merit.

Physicians who believe in homeopathy? Sad—and a failure for medical education, but most do not and, after all, medicine is, compared to e.g. math, a field requiring more memorization and less thinking.

(More generally, I have seen many cases of a member of field X who believes stupid thing Y or does not understand Z, and have shrugged it off as an individual nitwit, not representative of the majority. To return to the physicians: those who believe in homeopathy are not representative in this specific regard, but their presence still sends a warning sign for the field as a whole—maybe, they are somewhat representative in terms of ignorance or weakness of critical thinking.)

Bosses who are both less intelligent and less informed than half their teams? Well, the sad truth is that promotions rarely go to the true high potentials* and that e.g. showing dedication, behaving in the “right”** manner, becoming friendly with the right higher-ups, and understanding and using company politics is more important than being good at the actual job. (In a bigger picture, promotions-for-being-a-woman and promotions-for-being-a-minority-member have to be added, but I have myself been relative sheltered from them, likely simply because of the demographics of German software development. In neighboring departments, and during my time as a business analyst, I have seen some quite suspect cases, however.)

*A phrase somewhat popular in e.g. personnel management.

**Exactly what this implies will vary from case to case, but being sufficiently compliant and sufficiently sociable are common factors.

Over time, I continually shrank, in my mind, the circle of alleged experts who actually were experts, but I never truly stopped believing in experts: they might be rarer than they should be and they might be misallocated, but they do exist, they do, they do! (Or was that Santa Clause? I forget.)

Then came COVID and the conclusion that virtually everyone hailed as an expert* by media and politicians and virtually everyone put in charge of something important was a long way from where he should be.**

*But note that this still leaves room for experts not hailed as such by media and politicians.

**In the case of some, e.g. Fauci and Birx, not just in terms of competence but actual physical location, viz. prison.

A large part of this is, of course, misallocation, as true experts, unlike Santa Clause, do exist—they just are not put in the right positions. Much might be misrepresentation. A recurring problem is experts speaking on topics that they do not understand, using their (real or alleged) expertise on another topic as legitimacy, and/or their failure to factor in other fields. (As with e.g. the many lockdown proponents who failed to consider factors like the effect on the economy, which made lockdowns extremely dubious, even assuming that they had worked strictly from a defeat-COVID perspective. That the lockdowns did not work even to defeat COVID just makes it that much worse.) Another is true expertise being shouted down by propaganda, suppressed by threats of cancellations, and similar. However, the most damaging might well be empty credentials:

What does that diploma or whatnot truly mean? Higher education used to have a strong component of filtering for ability, intelligence (which is the most important in any expert), willingness to work hard, and similar, but is not necessarily that developing—a degree tells us who had the right type of mind before admission, but it does not create that mind. The mind is strong after graduation because it was strong before admission. Yes, I learned much during my own studies, but it did not fundamentally change me beyond what a similar stretch of e.g. work would have done.* Today, this filter effect has been catastrophically weakened, for reasons like laxer admissions,** lower standards to pass old courses, new courses that are bottom-of-the-barrel, and entire majors that might be passed just through being sufficiently compliant and not thinking for oneself (e.g. gender-studies). Even in the days of old, non-STEM fields were not ideal filters, as a hard worker could often compensate for a lack of brains.

*The typical college years fall into an interval when there is still some physical maturation taking place and when there are large “beginner’s gains” in terms of professionalism, self-knowledge, worldview, etc. (This especially as they often coincide approximately with leaving home, gaining new legal rights, having first major economic responsibility, first serious relationships, and similar.) A few years of virtually anything will make a difference, but the difference will be less a matter of e.g. college having a magic effect and more of nature taking its course.)

**Note how much larger the college population is relative the past.

From what I have observed myself, read, and been told by others, Ph.D. studies are similar—they do develop a narrow set of skills, but the main question is whether the mind was there before admission.*/** Moreover, doctoral studies often involve surprisingly long stretches of leg-work.

*Disclaimer: I have two Master’s degrees but have never been in a Ph.D. program.

**Reservation: There are some interesting differences between different countries. For instance, many U.S. (non-language) programs have a requirement that the candidate must have some knowledge, often “reading proficiency”, of one or two foreign languages by the time the degree is awarded. This requirement might increase the distance between Ph.D. holders and non-holders within a given country, but mostly because of a catching-up effect, as such language knowledge is expected at the end of high-school in many other countries, including Sweden. (I had nine years of English and six of German by the end of high school.)

That professorship? Well, as I have learned over the last few years, the main point of a professor today is neither research nor teaching—but collecting enough research grants for his employer. (And as early as the mid-1990s I had a professor complain to me that all the administrative work was taking up half his workday.) Now, when a professor is judged by how much money he brings in, what quality of professor qua researcher* and expert will result? Do not get me started on other aspects of academic research, like publish-or-perish, “p-hacking”, dubious co-authorships, pressure to get the “right” results, and whatnot.

*Being a good researcher plays in, of course, but knowing the right people, being charming, being able to bluff, and, sadly, the willingness to pick the right research topics seems more important. Even more sadly, fudging one’s results can be helpful (if undiscovered).

Looking at other qualifications, it is rarely better. High government positions, for instance, say very little about competence, and sufficiently high positions tend to be detached from actual research and expertise in favor of policy work, public relations, and whatnot. Awards are often dubious (witness many of the Nobels and Oscars), with a common influence of politics, filtering based on opinions, mutual pats on backs, and similar. The MacArthur “Genius grant” has been derided as entirely detached from genius.* Some awards are even invented for the purpose of publicity and credential padding (arguably, including the Oscars).

*I have not done the leg-work to have a firm own opinion, but I do note that somewhat recent recipients include the likes of Ibram X. Kendi (racist, hate monger, reality distorter) and Nikole Hannah-Jones (of the fraudulent 1619 project).

At the end of the day, formal credentials are better than nothing, but they do not truly separate the wheat from the chaff. If there is any doubt, consider the current German Minister of Health, Karl Lauterbach. His formal qualifications seem* to include

*Neither German nor English Wikipedia gives a thorough and consistent overview, and the matter is complicated by the different systems for medical education being used. The below is drawn from his self-published CV (in German), with some speculation on my behalf for the two first items.

  1. Academic qualification as a physician (the equivalent of a U.S. M.D.).
  2. An additional proper doctorate in medicine (which the U.S. M.D. is not).
  3. A Master of Public Health.
  4. A Master of Science in Health Policy and Management.
  5. A Doctor of Science in Health Policy and Management.

(To boot, often at Harvard.)

However, Karl Lauterbach is a disaster. He has pushed for mandatory vaccinations, at a time when the COVID pandemic was diminishing and others went in the opposite direction. He has ignored new data showing how misguided previous actions were—and instead wanted more of the same actions. Before he became Minister of Health, he was a serial guest on TV, propagandizing for extreme countermeasures (and there is, by now, beyond reasonable doubt that the countermeasures that were implemented did far more damage than the pandemic, per se). Both before and after his appointment, he has distributed true mis-/disinformation, including unsupported claims that a COVID-infection would lead to more rapid aging. Many consider him borderline cuckoo, instead of merely incompetent. I certainly consider him outright dangerous, even by the standards of Leftist politicians, the type of man who would wreck society and then look back in pride, insanely believing that he had saved it. (In all fairness, few complain about a runny nose after decapitation.)

Taking a step back to look at myself, when have I developed the most intellectually? In school? At university? No, when I have been at home, reading, thinking, and writing on my own. How does that compare in terms of paper qualifications? Well, formal education tops out at two master degrees, both with a nice diploma. The more worthwhile informal education leaves me with, depending on point of view, either a blank piece of paper or one typed by myself. In the latter case, I will have no accreditation and no advantage in credibility over someone who has not gone down my road but merely claims that he has.

Looking, similarly, at great geniuses* throughout history, they have often** had few or no university-level qualifications and/or had their main qualifications outside their later area of excellence—instead they started on a high level of natural talent (likely, typically g based), developed themselves on their own, and let their work speak for them. Edison had no degree. Srinivasa Ramanujan was largely self-/book-taught when he began his discoveries. Einstein earned a doctorate, but he did so in 1905, when he was already at the top—before that he had some nonsense degree to teach physics (or similar). Tolstoy was a university dropout.*** Paul McCartney has no degree and reputedly could not even read sheet music during his Beatles days. (The other members were similar, IIRC.) Etc.

*Note that I at no point say that I would be one of them.

**Very far from always, especially when we turn to fields that naturally require someone to have an advanced degree to be taken seriously, to get research opportunities, and so on. The further back in time we go, the more the “often” applies; the closer to the now, the less it applies. (As a natural development of both the availability of higher education and the increasing belief in empty credentials.) Go back sufficiently far, and those without degrees will dominate utterly; get close enough to the now, and few, even among the moderately bright, will fail to have at least a bachelor.

***The combination genius–dropout might be quite common.

Turn it around and look at how many have a bachelor, master, or doctorate, yet fail to display any signs of genius—indeed, look at how many are quite stupid. Does the modern day U.S. have more genius per capita than ancient Greece? Is that Ph.D.-wielding college professor in creative writing a greater author than the poorly educated Shakespeare? Why is Terence Tao (a Ph.D.-wielding math professor) considered a mathematical superstar, while most other Ph.D.-wielding math professors are not?

Comparing modern scientists, e.g. Terence Tao and a vanilla mathematician, brings us to another important point—that the type of credentials well known to the broad public, those that tend to fill (non-academic) CVs, those that politicians brag about (until accused of plagiarism), those that snotty pseudo-intellectuals might use as an excuse to be snotty, etc., are not the A and O within academia. At least in STEM fields, the Ph.D. has long been referred to as the “union card”—it is what permits the holder to actually perform work in the field. It is not, however, seen as proof of mastery of that field. To become a professor it might or might not be a pre-requisite (depends on the field and the country), but to apply for the job without a slew of published articles and other merits beyond the Ph.D. would be optimistic indeed. Similarly, a physician is very limited in his right to practice medicine after just receiving his degree, and much more on-the-job training follows before he is fully qualified to practice independently. Most other fields have lower or no entry hurdles, but it is, again, a near given among the knowledgeable that merely having a degree does not prove mastery of the field at hand—nor is it expected.

No, with some reservations for degrees that are both advanced and high in math, I ignore formal qualifications, even those on a Lauterbach level, these days. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Excursion on my parents:
The above includes far from all proper cases of disappointing “experts”, and it ignores borderline or merely related cases. A particularly interesting borderline case is parents: like so many other little kids, I once saw my parents as demi-gods, capable of doing anything, knowing everything, holding the keys to the world—magicians who made food appear and who could read the TV guide. How silly they turned out to be over time. Not to put too fine a point on it—they were outright human.


Written by michaeleriksson

October 30, 2022 at 8:32 pm

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] *Also see my own recent text on disillusionment with experts. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: