Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Experts and Imperfect Information

In my previous blog, I suggested that the Gulf Oil Spill is has been polluted by a surge of experts. Since I already discussed a libertarian stance on leadership, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at those "experts."

First of all, leaders and experts have a lot in common. Both enjoy the social privileges associated with authority and both gain those privileges via a maze of socio-political construction. So what is an "expert?" Well, today the process of gaining expertise is a lot different than it was in the past. On the other hand, let me suggest that all societies in all times and all places produce experts and that the processes employed are very similar. At the cultural level, the first experts were probably religious experts that claimed to possess knowledge of the will of God. More recent experts claim to know the will of Nature. While we'd all like to say that there's a major difference between experts on religion and experts on nature, I'd argue that there's more commonality than difference. The most obvious commonality is that expertise has always been conferred by a public institution of some kind. Religious experts are coronated by religious institutions and scientific experts are coronated by scientific institutions. Today, scientific expertise is contingent upon the completion of a series of tasks and the acquistion of a technical language that signify membership in the community of scientific experts. FThis entails attending a college or university that confers documents that confer expertise. Once you complete this series of tasks (usually four years) you must undergo a ceremony of initiation. These ceremonies exhibit highly ritualized speech and behavior that involve costumes, music, documents and a gallery of witnesses comprised of family and friends of the conferees. These pompous ceremonies are conducted by old experts that have already completed these rituals. Near the end of the ceremonies, conferees are awarded their official documents, which signal the acquistion of expertise. These documents are usually prominently displayed on a wall where the expert sells his/her expertise. Once this document is secured, the new expert joins an association, which has its own rituals and mode of communication.

It is important to note that throughout human history the vast majority of conferers and conferees of expertise have been men. Although, in recent years, many females have entered the brotherhood of experts, they tend to be experts in areas involving the "care" of other humans; especially in primary education, health care, and social science. But there are still very few female experts in physics, mathematics, engineering, or religion. In recent years there has been an overall surge in the number of female experts, as the number of males that complete the ritual declines. How that plays out over the long run remains to be seen.

Now there are two different kinds of experts. First, there are experts that acquire "perfect information" over the course of their ritual. The hallmark of the acquisition of perfect information is that it leads to the ability to effectively predict or control something of value. An expert in mathematics can accurately add, subtract, and multipy numbers; and expert in engineering can build a bridge. This kind of expertise is easily demonstrated so if your mathematical calculations are wrong or if your bridge falls into the river, your expertise may be questioned, despite the possession of the document displayed on a wall. Occasionally, the conferers of expertise withdraw their expert designation and remove the document from the wall of the conferee. But not very often. In fact, the higher the level of expertise attained, the less likely it is that you'll lose that document.

The second kind of expert, claims possession of "imperfect information." These experts are usually held to a much lower standard, given that the phenomena that they predict and control are more complex and therefore there is less consensus among the conferers of expertise as to what the expert will be able to predict or control after the document is conferred. The most noteworthy experts on imperfect information are in religion, philosophy, social science, medicine, theoretical physics, macro-economics, and ecological science. The hallmark of experts on imperfect information is that it is more difficult for them to publically demonstrate their expertise and even more difficult to disprove their expertise. Therefore, experts in imperfect information primarily demonstrate their expertise by producing documents that other experts in their association occasionally read and criticise. Fortunately, publication of these documents is sufficient to maintain expert designation, even if no one understands or even reads those documents.

Finally, it is important to note that experts on imperfect information, rarely if ever, admit that their information is imperfect. But instead, they claim to possess perfect information. Since their bridges never fall in the river, and their oil wells rarely pollute the waterways, these kinds of experts tend to enjoy a high degree of job security. Therefore, in the near future we can expect an increase in the number of experts on imperfect information. We can also expect more falling bridges and oil spills.

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