The worst aspect of growing up for me has been the realization that a lot of the expert gyaan we receive is ineffective, ridiculous, wrong and many a time outright dangerous.
Well. All of it – probabilistically speaking, with a very high level of confidence.
I wanted to incite people to burn all the self-help books, go on dharnas to remove advice columns from all publications, and wage a war against the publish or perish culture of research and academia.
Then I came across this book with an obnoxiously long title of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them written by journalist David H. Freeman. It managed to curb my rather ambitious and violent intentions down to wanting people to just read this book as it says what I wanted to say in a rather cool-headed and polite manner. At times too apologetic to douse my fury, at times trying too hard to prove something that’s obvious, at times going into journalistic diversions that the engineer in me cringes at, and at times using a roundabout way to explain a simple statistical term like ‘confounding variable’, the book does test my patience here and there. But overall it is a book that I could ask people to read instead of – you know – organizing self-help-book-burning sessions, sitting on dharnas or waging wars.
So, why do I want people to read this book?
Because I am sick of people who want simple, optimistic, pleasant, actionable and universal solutions to their life’s problems. Those who want a clear-cut answer to whether Computer Science in NIT is better than Aerospace Engineering at an IIT, whether they should do an MBA or not, whether marrying an entrepreneur is better than marrying an investment banker, and so on – you get the point. They don’t want the right advice, which will force you to examine many complicated things about yourself and the world. No! They want what the book calls resonant answers. With all the characteristics I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph. Do X to achieve Y sort of solutions.
And because people want it, an entire advice-giving industry has been erected to serve their needs, which keeps doling out simple secrets to a wonderful life through best-selling books, TV programmes, speaking engagements and workshops, newspaper reporting, magazine columns, and now through You Tube videos or dime a dozen online publications.
Probably all of us have been skeptical of some of this advice at some point of time, but we are definitely not as skeptical as we should be, given the colossal scale and absurdity of advice being doled out, and SADLY consumed.
Certain kinds of informal experts – the magic-diet creators, the celebrity lifestyle gurus, local experts like mechanics – are usual suspect for potentially being incompetent, ignorant, giving wrong advice and building their careers around dubious offerings.
But business gurus? Those who tirelessly mete out advice based on whatever latest management fad there is or squeeze out banally generic lessons from successful companies have been proven wrong time and again. Yet their popularity does not seem to wane.
Professional life or personal, we seem to have this insatiable appetite for resonant advice. We don’t like to accept that most problems do not have a clear-cut solution. Any good advice, if there is one at all, will come with if’s and but’s and uncertainties and qualifications. It will most likely be difficult to follow through and still not offer a guarantee of success. The best anyone will have to offer will be an explanation of things, which leaves us with nothing concrete or actionable.
Okay! So, all those business gurus and self-styled informal experts are charlatans. But what about scientists and researchers? Aren’t they the paragons of truth-seeking? Don’t they do better?
This is where the last shreds of your faith in the truth-seeking tendencies of human-kind will fall apart. From ignoring confounding variables, to mis-measuring, to plainly doctoring the data to create sensational, publishable results, there is no statistical, operational or ethical crime that our revered scientists have not been guilty of. And no! Those are not exceptions. The much heralded peer review process doesn’t weed out the careless and incorrect studies. Even direct observations of misconducts are not reported or acted upon, and finally even after publications most studies are not replicated or verified. The incentives are so skewed that honesty and diligence don’t pay. Even the self-reported (anonymously, of course) levels of frauds and misconduct in scientific community are staggering. Whenever people have tried to look into scientific studies, the conclusion is that given the kind of system and incentives we have created in academia and research, scientific findings are just not reliable.
If you think that I am asking you to read a depressing book, I do hope it is not the case. I hope that you find this liberating in the way I found it. That the nagging doubts I had about all the gyaan floating around me were not a figment of my imagination or arrogance. The rot runs real deep and the amount of outward make-up to keep things looking nice and sorted is ugly! At the end of the day, you would be better off being deeply skeptical of things that seem too good to be true. They probably are.
But there is no reason to despair. You have yourself to depend on. After reading this book, the skepticism you will create in yourself will prevent you from falling into the expert trap!
Below is the book description from the publisher’s website:
Our investments are devastated, obesity is epidemic, test scores are in decline, blue-chip companies circle the drain, and popular medications turn out to be ineffective and even dangerous. What happened? Didn’t we listen to the scientists, economists and other experts who promised us that if we followed their advice all would be well?
Actually, those experts are a big reason we’re in this mess. And, according to acclaimed business and science writer David H. Freedman, such expert counsel usually turns out to be wrong–often wildly so. Wrong reveals the dangerously distorted ways experts come up with their advice, and why the most heavily flawed conclusions end up getting the most attention-all the more so in the online era. But there’s hope: Wrong spells out the means by which every individual and organization can do a better job of unearthing the crucial bits of right within a vast avalanche of misleading pronouncements.