If you want to profit from expertise, you must first tame it

Monday, June 11th, 2018

If you want to profit from expertise, you must first tame it:

To draw a line between when high expertise helps and when it potentially hinders, we first need to acknowledge that this anti-elitist trend did not emerge from nothing. ‘Experts’ as a group (if such a thing can be held to exist) have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the last few years, so the cynicism they now face is to some degree justifiable.

We need not get into the weeds here about the specific issues. But, suffice it to say, the complex manoeuvring of some extremely bright and learned people unwittingly triggered the financial crisis. Apocalyptic deadlines for climate change devastation came and went without fireworks. Election predictions on both sides of the Atlantic have been appalling, as have the predictions on the immediate consequences of those elections. Silicon Valley ‘geniuses’ plunge from one self- inflicted crisis to another. And, meanwhile, we have watched as what many people consider lunacy leaks out of the credentialed halls of academia and into the world at large.

In other words, smart people keep getting it wrong and scepticism about their competence has grown as a result. This seems to be a fairly straightforward story at first glance, and yet the public will only take their antipathy so far. Nobody says, “I want someone unqualified to be my president, therefore I also want someone unqualified to be my surgeon.” Nobody doubts the value of the expertise of an engineer or a pilot. This apparent inconsistency is what frustrates the anti-anti-elitists so much, not least because it seems to be unjustifiable.

However, it is worth drawing a distinction between these two types of expertise — the kind people question, and the kind people don’t. In short, people value expertise in closed systems, but are distrustful of expertise in open systems. A typical example of a closed system would be a car engine or a knee joint. These are semi-complex systems with ‘walls’ — that is to say, they are self-contained and are relatively incubated from the chaos of the outside world. As such, human beings are generally capable of wrapping their heads around the possible variables within them, and can therefore control them to a largely predictable degree. Engineers, surgeons, pilots, all these kinds of ‘trusted’ experts operate in closed systems.

Open systems, on the other hand, are those that are ‘exposed to the elements,’ so to speak. They have no walls and are therefore essentially chaotic, with far more variables than any person could ever hope to grasp. The economy is an open system. So is climate. So are politics. No matter how much you know about these things, there is not only always more to know, but there is also an utterly unpredictable slide towards chaos as these things interact.

The erosion of trust in expertise has arisen exclusively from experts in open systems mistakenly believing that they know enough to either predict those systems or — worse — control them. This is an almost perfect definition of hubris, an idea as old as consciousness itself. Man cannot control nature, and open systems are by definition natural systems. No master of open systems has ever succeeded — they have only failed less catastrophically than their counterparts.

Every king, queen, pharaoh, emperor, president, prime minister, and dictator-for-life in history has tried to master statecraft, and every one of them has failed. If they had not, their formula would have calcified into knowledge and rumbled on successfully indefinitely. And wasn’t such a legacy the goal of every single one of them? The better ones only failed more gradually, less bloodily, than the rest. But slowly their ideas, too, unravelled in the face of chaos. Ultimately, history has shown this to be axiomatic: the more you seek to control nature, to control an open system, the more disastrous the results.

Knowing this, it’s a wonder that humility in the face of open systems is still such a rare commodity amongst those who know them. Perhaps it’s because the Enlightenment granted us so much mastery over closed systems that we forgot the distinction existed. One could argue that we have earned our arrogance when it comes to technological progress, for instance. But just because we invented smartphones, it does not follow that we can predict the future.


  1. Kirk says:

    This pretty much synthesizes what I’ve been thinking for years. The root of the problem is that the academic “expert” is trying to impose control on a fundamentally chaotic phenomenon, wherever they attempt it–And, that phenomenon will push back, hard, at every attempt.

    This is why command economies fail: There is no way they can possibly function as efficiently as the chaotic free-for-all of traditional economics. Everywhere they try to exert control, whether it’s Diocletian Rome or the early Soviet Union, the nature of things defies the attempt, and the resulting positive feedback just results in more speaker squeal.

    We badly need to recognize this, and start building systems and cultures that recognize this, small self-sufficient cellular structures that work together as necessary to deal with problems, as opposed to these massive dysfunctional hierarchies that choke out innovation and actual success.

  2. Kirk says:

    Let me share an epiphany I just experienced, thinking about how best to word this:

    The best system is no system.

    In other words, any attempt to impose order on chaos is doomed to failure; instead, we must embrace chaos and dance along its knife-edge, adjusting our behavior and solutions to match the challenges of the moment. Any attempt to freeze the state into a rigid and inflexible straight-jacket so that you can deal with the challenge via some fixed hierarchy is doomed to failure from the start. This is why bureaucracies tend to metastasize and grow far past the point where the problem or situation that they were brought into being to deal with even exists in a recognizable form. The problem isn’t the nature of the bureaucracy, it is the nature of man and the universe as they interact. Nothing is perfect; nothing is perfectible. You must deal with things in the moment, and improvise as best you can. And, today’s solution is likely tomorrow’s problem…

  3. Sam J. says:

    I think Trump won for much more common sense reasons. Mass immigration, ignoring illegal aliens, endless wars for Israel and the movement of manufacturing overseas. All of these are to the benefit of the already wealthy and powerful and to the detriment of the average American. It has nothing to do with rejecting competence. He was the only one willing to even talk about these, the main issues, that concern people.

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