Expertise and punditry (updated)

I concluded my post “Against Epistocracy” with the question “Who gets to decide who is well-informed? And who gets to decide who gets to decide?”. This is, I think, a fatal flaw in any system proposing to replacing democracy with rule by a well-informed elite, or any kind of putative aristocracy. But even in a democratic system, we have to make decisions about who should decide things. In many cases, we would like to call on expert advice, and that brings us back to the question “who, if anybody, is an expert on a given topic”. I don’t have a complete answer, but I think it’s helpful to distinguish between experts and pundits or, better, between expertise and punditry.

Update: I just saw this review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols which is obviously relevant. A crucial requirement for a successful defence of expertise is that we avoid defending authority based on mere punditry.

An easily accessible example is that of forecasting election outcomes. For a long time, this was the domain of pundits, the archetypal example being David Broder, the last (AFAICT) holder of the office of Dean of the Washington Press Corps*. Pundits like Broder and his Australian equivalents (the closest would be Laurie Oakes) drew on their deep connection with the American (or Australian) people to make pronouncements about the way their people were likely to vote.

Political pundits were pretty much put out of the business of electoral forecasting when experts (Nate Silver in the US and psephbloggers like Peter Brent and William Bowe in Australia) arrived on the scene. The experts applied statistical tools to poll results, ignored the temptation to analyse shifts within the margin of error or to extrapolate trends and generally did a much better job.

As a first approximation, expertise involves command of a body of knowledge on a given topic that is based on a coherent (if sometimes implicit) theory and validated by evidence. It can be as concrete and specific as a plumber’s knowledge of how to fix a leaky pipe or as abstract as a mathematicians ability to check the correctness of a proof. Expertise is not infallible, but it’s almost always better than the alternative.

By contrast, successful punditry requires knowledge of specific facts relevant to the topic in question and, ideally, a capacity for intuitive insight, combined with the rhetorical gifts necessary to present these as a source of authoritative knowledge. The most important of these is a capacity to make statements that look like testable predictions but in fact cover all possibilities. Failing this, a social environment in which established pundits are never called to account for their errors will do the trick.

I’ll leave it to readers to discuss which areas of public policy discussions are dominated by expertise, which by punditry and which by conflict between the two.

* As a working academic, I’ve been trained to be wary of anyone with the title “Dean”, but others seem to think it’s an honorific.

19 thoughts on “Expertise and punditry (updated)

  1. Thanks John……interesting post and should be compulsory reading for anyone sucking on the teat of the ivory tower (not directed at you ….. more the face in my mirror) but wishes to play games in the real world and ‘make a difference’. By way simply of further observations on this problem.

    1. Nate Silver certainly is god…..well not really but he and his organisation have done an excellent job of injecting scientific reasoning under conditions of uncertainty into several fields, mainly those where punditry is popular.

    Most depressing for me has been watching the numbers on Trump…..which showed he still had a significant chance of winning when all others had written him off…….and other numbers today which show despite Trump living up to his appalling expectations a. he is still aligned with all the Repulbican congresspersons and senators, so impeachment would be pointless, b. he has settled into a 40% approval rating, not too different from our own deity substitute Malcolm. So all this good lefty punditry on his imminent demise seems merely more self delusion – something many green/left ideologues like wallowing in……instead of coming to terms with reality and figuring out a response more effective than jousting at windmills.

    2. Anyone who has worked in a big corporation, and escaped, should be aware of an interesting flaw in both internal and external experts – the tendency to adopt the corporate mission and so undermine what this expertise is telling them. Unfortunately this applies to manager scientists too, to a high degree, especially when they have some specious management tools available which can be used to rationalise corporate policy instead of a change in direction based on facts, complications, uncertainty etc.. This tendency to groupthing compromises the advice offered by internal experts badly. External experts on the other hand may still know a problem may be not so simple. But they have give their paymasters what is expected. So what we hear from both classes of experts must from first principles be suspect and subject to reality checks. But how?

    3. An area of economics/management I increasingly have respect for is its exploration of decision making. Operational experts (as distinct from the pundit class) are increasingly there to legitimise/support/predict the impact of, corporate decisions made consistent with an organisations policy settings. Unfortunately the world is complex, loaded with uncertainty and variance and ever changing. So honest experts are hamstrung by needing to provide yes/no advice to problems for which there may not be a simple answer.

  2. The conclusions you reach will be a product of how you define expertise and punditry, Prof John. First, I think your definition of expertise is contestable.There is no end of economists who would be universally regarded as having deep expertise in their field, but to a scientist, their theory is incoherent and contradicted by (scientific) evidence. Expertise in a single field to the exclusion of expertise from different fields in public policy is not always better than the alternatives. Enthusiasts can take a policy in a very disserviceable direction if not reined in or moderated by insights from other disciplines. Jeffrey Sachs heading off to Russia to restructure their economy would be a case in point.

    Similarly, there is punditry and punditry. Pundits who have an ideological flavour and interpret objective evidence through coloured lenses can eventually be recognised for what they are and can be validated or otherwise as events take their course. But some pundits are hired guns and if they carry the imprimatur of a source of authority, and especially if they are reinforced by other lots of other pundits pushing the same view, then punditry can become brainwashing. You don’t need me to join the dots.

    The problem with the post is summed up in the sentence before the footnote: as a society, we leave it to citizen readers to differentiate between ideological brainwashing and honest diverse commentary. But readers who have been brainwashed can’t make that judgement effectively.

  3. To be flippant for a moment, my favourite definition of an expert is:
    “An ex pert is a drip who was under pressure.”
    And for a pundit, my favourite is:
    “A pun dit is a taxi driver who thinks he’s a comedian.”

    Now being serious again, expertise is in the implementation of the skilful use of both knowledge and experience! Whereas a pundit may be neither, skilled in anything more than persuasive speaking, nor, very experienced in real world applications of logic. As for some sort of Pkato derived democracy, I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Quiggin.

  4. I think there’s a simpler way to distinguish pundits from experts. Pundits are cocksure, experts are hesitant.

    Pundits have to be cocksure because their job is to be listened to – and they know only the cocksure are listened to. Experts are hesitant because they’ve been trained in the wisdom of HL Mencken’s line about “for every question there is a simple and plausible answer, which is always wrong”.

  5. @derrida derider
    And experts are often hesitant precisely because they comprehend the boundaries of their knowledge domain. Pundits, who perceive no such boundaries,I confidently pronounce on practically any question put to them. Yet in the public sphere, the pundit’s confidence so often trumps the more conditional response of the true expert.

  6. @Newtownian
    What is your basis for thinking that Trump’s popularity has bottomed out round 40%? Nate Silver’s chart clearly shows a declining trend since Day 1. Furthermore, the unpopularity is not driven by a single specific crisis, which Trump has been lucky to avoid so far, but by a widespread failure that reflects his general incompetence, ignorance, and self-delusion. These are his character and won’t change. Continued failure is therefore inevitable. The default prediction is based on the assumption that the future will be like the past, and Trump’s popularity will continue to decline slowly.

    A change in pattern could of course happen. Trump could achieve something. The likeliest candidates are ACA repeal and other tax cuts for the rich, which would in fact be failures. ISIS will be destroyed as a territorial power, but it’s hard to see how Trump could claim much of the credit. The G20 will be bad for him. He is getting nowhere on North Korea and the Qatar spat. On the downside, an economic downturn or stick market crash are always possible, and any number of conflict hotspots could get hotter.

  7. PS: I forgot that the downside risks include Mueller finding a smoking gun on collusion with Russia to rig his election. This might not lead to impeachment, but would surely tank his remaining popularity. Not highly probable, sure.

  8. Since a university is full of experts – I only intend partial irony here – a university ought to be ideally placed to manage itself, given adequate resources. How should a university govern and manage itself? It’s an intellectual hot-house which should not be short on experts in many fields and also should not be short on competing ideologies and well-developed theories on how it should govern itself.

    The contest of ideas between genuine democracy and meritocratic (expert) governance must, in a sense, be thrown into high contrast in a university. There is a bunch of mostly young students 18 years or over (legal voting age) and a relatively small group of expert teachers with administrators, deans and chancellors above them, maybe. Who should have a say in governance of the university? We give our students a vote in general elections but not a vote in university governance? (Is this assumption correct?) Why should this be so?

    Student rebellions over academic content are not unknown. Given the less than glorious paths and outcomes of monetarism, neoliberalism and managerialism in our society and in our universities, it follows that democratic, grass-roots student rebellions against these ideologies and methods in Economics Departments and elsewhere in the universities would be justified. The only questions in my mind are these. How far should this rebellion be taken? How radically should university governance be transformed?

  9. @derrida derider

    Not to be pedantic (actually, to be pedantic) the Mencken quote is “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”.

  10. I don’t think the question should be limited to punditry or democracy.

    One of the challenges of modern life is the proliferation of experts and the resulting difficulty in understanding what their expertise is. The cliche “don’t ask your lawyer for medical advice”, in other words. Just because someone is an expert and has an opinion, doesn’t mean their opinion is meaningful let alone useful.

    A related problem is insecure experts. To me, one of the marks of an expert is self-knowledge, and being comfortable saying “I don’t know, would you like my help finding out?” So when I ask my lawyer for medical advice, I expect “not my area of expertise, do you want a recommendation?” or similar. Instead we see a great deal of prancing about “I know all about {specific thing} therefore I will bloviate about {everything}”. Thanks, {really good at being famous}, I’ve always wanted to know what the moron community thinks about vaccines.

  11. Climate change is the obvious contemporary area where public discussions involve a mix of expertise and punditry. The experts are completely drowned out by the pundits. This is almost inevitable in any area where the ideological temperature is high. Vaccination of children against measles etc is an area where you have both pundits and experts but experts dominate. This is probably because vaccination doesn’t really lend itself to ideology (though some people try).

  12. @Moz of Yarramulla

    ” we see a great deal of prancing about “I know all about {specific thing} therefore I will bloviate about {everything}” ”

    This is so, so true, and is often encouraged by lazy and stupid journalists. X is an expert in, say, civil engineering. A journalist needs a quote on a matter to do with, say, electrical engineering, about which X actually knows as much as the check out operator at Coles, but the journalist thinks, “What the hell, I’ve got X’s number in my contacts, the readers won’t be able to tell the difference”. Or maybe the journalist doesn’t understand that X doesn’t know anything about this subject. So the journalist asks X, who happily obliges.

  13. @Smith

    I will admit that in my little experience of “live” TV and radio it’s quite hard not to answer questions, and there’s a strong pressure to continue to pretence of expertise. I’ve been broadcast with the caveats clipped out of the quote, but I’ve also been hassled by churnalists when I put the caveats in the middle because it makes me hard to excerpt.

    The media actively look for the sort of broad-reach expert who will reliably give them a quote on any subject. So, Prof Quiggin, what do you think of the decision to invade Afghanistan? 🙂

  14. @Smith
    @Moz of Yarramulla

    Blogs provide a partial solution. I write about anything I feel like here on the blog, and try to stick closer to my area of professional expertise when I do radio or TV.

    As regards Afghanistan, I’ve held just about every opinion possible, so hopefully I’ve been right at least once.

  15. Re: Against epistocracy

    You might be interested in the recent book “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy”, by I haven’t read it but his proposition seems far more interesting than the stale and unjustifiable idea of restricting voting to the “well-informed”. Reybrouck suggests to make use of a device that was common in earlier democratic polities: selecting deciders by lottery. Specifically, he suggests a bicameral system, one elected, one drawn by lottery.

  16. “A House of Lads” would kind of defeat the purpose, since the point of lottery draw would be to get an actually representative body, which would have to be gender balanced as well as proportionally represent minorities and economic groups. Remember there is now not a single even remotely representative legislative body in the world, even in those countries that have proportional representation. Again, I haven’t read the book but the idea seems worth exploring.

  17. In all the talk of epistocracy I’m surprised that no mention appears to have been made that in 2014 the NSW conservative government legislated to give two votes to citizens who are members of a particular sector of society. Specfically, business owners were given the privilege of being able (and required) to vote twice:

    Not an epistocracy (certainly not!) but rather, a corporatocracy it would seem.

    History shows that the voters were less than impressed in 2016, but the legislated skew remains inplace as far as I know, and if it’s not repealed in the future it’s only a matter of time before the local government of Sydney is chosen by businesses rather than by the population generally.

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