Elite Expertise?

A recent article in the Atlantic was reassuring to me. It provided confidence that general wisdom – the kind provided by ethics and principles – can be more reliable than professional expertise in guiding our decision-making. Consider Boeing’s reliance on exquisite software to overcome a design problem with the large engines used in its 737 Max8 aircraft.

Philip Tetlock did a study of the reliability of expert predictions. Over 20 years at work, he gathered from experts 82,361 probability estimates about the future.

The experts were, by and large, very bad forecasters.

When they declared an event was impossible, in 15% of the cases, it happened. When they declared an event was certain to happen, in over 25% of the cases, it did not.

Later studies came up with similar results. There is a cost to focusing too narrowly when it comes to thinking about the future.

Importantly, a sub-group of scholars did better in predicting those events that did happen. They were not vested in a single discipline. They integrated conflicting views. They had personalities which made them effective collaborators. They were curious about everything. They viewed teammates as sources of new knowledge, not as rivals to be convinced.

When outcomes differed from what they had expected, these generalists adjusted their thinking, while more narrowly specialized experts barely budged from their established views. The best forecasters viewed their ideas as hypotheses in need of testing.