An Intervention in the Cult of Expertise: Noreena Hertz and Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open Cover (Harper Business)

This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing [anything]. On the other hand, I – equally ignorant – do not believe [that I know anything].
Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

The more I learn, the less I know.  This is the age of “Big Data”, with a priesthood of experts promising to deliver greater understanding.  Yet data is as useful as a box of rocks until we can turn it into meaningful information.  How do we do that?  And who do we trust to help us?  That’s what economist Noreena Hertz aims to help us do in her new book, Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World (Harper Business).

You may have heard of Professor Hertz as an early herald of the 2008 global financial crisis.  I first took notice of her TED talk a couple years ago, “How to use experts — and when not to”.  I don’t endorse her politics, but I do appreciate her skills of observation.  At the time, I applied her topic to my involvement in Scouting. I was concerned that the Professionals had taken all of the fun out of it:

I blame the Soccer Moms.

Many of us in Generation X were brought up believing that if Mom (and Dad) really cared they would get us “professional help”.  Paid day care providers knew better how to raise us and professional teachers knew better than mom and dad how to educate us.  Onlylosers settled for mom or dad volunteering as coach.  They hired the soccer coach when they really cared.  Plus, it gets mom and dad off the hook for spending time with their kids—just let the experts deal with it.

…Over time, we have come to rely more and more on professionals and experts.  The Movement gives way to policy and procedure and program.  Edicts come down from Dallas and the rest of us are expected to comply.

Excuse me if I sound less than inspired by the bureaucracy.

A cult of expertise seeps through modern Western culture.  As we are faced with more and more data in our 24/7 networked world, we turn to experts more and more to makes sense of it all.  However, as Hertz points out in her book, on average “experts” are no better at making decisions than a monkey throwing random darts.  Not only do too many experts not deliver results, but they do deliver a bounty of unintended consequences.  Jane Jacobs warned us of the unintended consequences of urban renewal years ago.  Della Rucker (The Local Economy Revolution) and Chuck Marohn (Strong Towns) and others are warning us today about the unintended consequences of building crummy places to live. The men behind the curtains are just people like you and I.  This is not a new message.

At first it seemed slightly surreal for an expert to be calling out the expertise industry.  In the full book treatment, however, Hertz goes beyond the easy task of pointing out the emperor has no clothes.  In fact, the failings of experts is but one small part of her overall self-help book for doing without self-help books.  In 10 steps, she takes us through a positive course in better decision-making, finding the forest in the trees of Big Data, taking responsibility for curating (not just consuming) expertise, and developing better understandings of how and why we do what we do.

Hertz challenges us to, as she titles the section, “become your own custodian of truth.”  Rather than take a relativistic approach you might expect from a ivory tower academic, she takes apart some really awful situations where context beat out book learning.  In many ways, Hertz echoes business author Jim Collins (Good to Great) in her call to “Learn from Shepherds and Shop Assistants”.  If you want to know what’s going on, get as close to the situation as you can.  Listen to the people on the ground:  “Experience can trump expertise and status.”

I don’t get the feeling that Hertz is trying to come across as having come up with any great new insights, any more than Rucker or Marohn do in their (more modest) works.  She simply presents her personal experience challenging the common wisdom in favor of common sense.  All three experts in their chosen fields are giving us permission to admit what we don’t know and still take back responsibility for our professional and personal decisions.  They are mounting an intervention to help us step out of the cult of expertise with our own eyes wide open.  What we do with that is our choice.

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