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Blog: The trouble with experts

The trouble with experts

As the world gets more confusing and complicated, who do we turn to for answers?

We tend to trust an expert – an economist, a scientist, an ‘ologist (as comedian Maureen Lipman called them). The trouble with experts is that they tend to have a very narrow approach to an issue, and this makes them ill-equipped to advise on some of the complex problems we face.

And even when we do turn to the experts we often ignore their counsel. Take the Brexit vote. The media wheeled out quite a few ‘expert’ economists who warned us that there would be severe financial consequences if we voted to leave the EU. It made no difference. We not only ignored the advice of these economic experts, we also ignored the advice of all political experts, including every ex-Prime Minister still alive from both political parties; the US president and every Head of State in Europe. Despite all of these ‘experts’ telling us to remain we still voted to leave.

So why do we turn to experts and then refuse to believe them? The answer is partly to do with the experts themselves. An expert is usually deeply trained to have a clear and singular perspective on an issue. Therein lies the problem. They may have very deep knowledge on the topic in question but, almost by definition, they lack the breadth and experience to be able to see beyond their own area of expertise. Such a narrow focus means they are poorly equipped to integrate multiple perspectives or see the issue from an unrelated stand point.

Such narrowness explains why researchers found that if you put a team of ten experts up against a team of seven experts and three ill-informed people, the latter group will come up with better answers . Why? Because wisdom is driven by diversity.

So what to do about this expert problem?

The answer is in the ‘rise of the wise’. We need to avoid seeking answers from experts with narrow perspectives and we need to find the wise people; the polymaths who know a lot about a lot of things in seemingly unrelated fields. I don’t mean the generalists who know a little about several things. Rather those very rare individuals who have a depth of understanding in a number of disparate areas. They are often mature, not necessarily old, just mature in terms of wisdom, with no axe to grind. Wise individuals are often very skillful at connecting and integrating different ideas rather than privileging a single point of view.

We must stop dumbing things down to binary choices, which exacerbates the problem. We must start involving wise people in the complex problems we face and explore issues in a much more productive, open and integrated way. Only then will we start to make real progress in finding answers and generating better quality decisions.

Let’s move away from our addiction to experts and bring on the wise!

For more on this, see Dr Alan Watkins’ book Crowdocracy: The Future of Government & Governance

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Dr Alan Watkins

Alan is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance. He has a broad mix of commercial, academic, scientific and technological abilities.

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