Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Experts"

I once wrote this sketch for Canadian radio. It was constructed as an interview with a man who knew where fish went in the winter.

The interview began very cordially. The interviewer was enthusiastic about the piscatorial “scoop” that was about to be exclusived on his show. In moments, the secret of where fish go in the winter would be revealed to the world. But first, there were some preliminary questions.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about yourself. What are your credentials?

THE MAN WHO KNEW: What do you mean?

INTERVIEWER: Which college did you attend?

THE MAN WHO KNEW: I didn’t go to college.

INTERVIEWER: You didn’t?

THE MAN WHO KNEW: Nope.

INTERVIEWER: Then where did you study about where fish go in the winter?

THE MAN WHO KNEW: I didn’t study anywhere.

INTERVIEWER: You had to have studied somewhere.

THE MAN WHO KNEW: Well, I didn’t.

INTERVIEWER: What did you do? You sat in the library and read books on where fish go in the winter?

THE MAN WHO KNEW: Nope.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t understand.

THE MAN WHO KNEW: No studying, no books.

INTERVIEWER: You consulted with experts in the field.

THE MAN WHO KNEW: Not a one.

INTERVIEWER: You didn’t talk to experts.

THE MAN WHO KNEW: I don’t know any.

INTERVIEWER: It was simply a matter of personal research?

THE MAN WHO KNEW: No research.

INTERVIEWER: Then how exactly did you come to your conclusions?

THE MAN WHO KNEW: I thought about it and I figured it out.

INTERVIEWER: You’re telling us you have no background or training in this subject whatsoever?

THE MAN WHO KNEW: None at all. But I do know where fish go in the winter. Would you like me to tell you?

(At this point, the interviewer spoke directly to the listening audience.)

INTERVIEWER: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to terminate this interview. Our guest may know where fish go in the winter, but he’s not qualified to know. I apologize once again. Thank you, and good night.

So, what am I saying here? That I know something nobody else knows, or something equally as arrogant? I admit that’s what the sketch is about, but I only created it to make a point.

The point being: Whether you know something or not, if you’re not perceived to be an expert, you’ll never get heard.

I’m not sure I know anything original myself. Remember, I worked in television my whole career. You ever see anything original there?

I am considered to be an expert in that field, and being so considered, I am treated accordingly. Whenever I've submitted commentaries concerning situation comedies to the Los Angeles Times, they always got printed.

However, when I submit commentaries on any other subject, the response is one hundred percent in the opposite direction. They never got printed.

The Times specifically asks for readers to submit commentaries to their op-ed page. But you never read in the italicized identifier at the bottom:

“The above commentary was written by a regular person who happens to read this paper.”

It’s always Henry Kissinger. And he doesn’t even live in Los Angeles.


Why is Henry Kissinger in there and not, say, me? Because everybody’s heard of Henry Kissinger. To borrow a phrase from Bill Cosby, Henry Kissinger sells tickets. Why?

Expert.

Let me be clear. Experts are wonderful in their place. I don’t want to go to a dentist and say, “My tooth hurts” and have him reply, “What do you want me to do about it?” I don’t want to report to my heart specialist, “My heart’s bothering me” and have him respond, “What do you think it might be?” I don’t want the pilot on the plane I’m flying in to flipping on the intercom and announcing, “There’s a bunch of dials up here. I’m really confused.”

I like experts, especially when my life’s on the line. Having experts is natural. It’s a product of our division of labor. In caveman days, not everyone was a great hunter. One guy threw a spear and killed every animal he aimed at. Another guy threw a spear and hit his cousin.

Maybe the terrible hunter made great sandals and the animal killer didn’t. So they struck an agreement. It was the barter system – dead animals for sandals. Probably one dead animal for a whole bunch of sandals, but the sandal maker didn’t mind. He was tired of coming home:

“What did you kill?”

“Cousin Shelly.”

Nobody can do everything, so people specialized in one thing, and pretty soon, they became experts. Being focused on your own work and less knowledgeable about other people’s, you ended up trusting each other’s expertise. You didn’t interfere with their work and they wouldn’t interfere with yours. (Unless you were a network executive, in which case, that’s all you did.)

There is a problem, however, with putting your trust in experts. Experts can mess up. Experts said the Soviet Union was a powerful nation, when it wasn’t. They told us there were weapons in Iraq – nothing there, except, now, us. Experts assured us Hillary was a lock for the nomination, and later, that Obama would take New Hampshire.

Oh-for-two.

Their track records suggest that experts can be wrong – a lot – even though they’re experts. They can also be wrong because they’re experts. They see what they’re trained to see, and they’re blindered against seeing anything else.

Expert stomach doctors treated ulcers with special diets and a lifelong regimen of medicine. Then some doctors from Australia, hardly a hotbed of gastroenterological expertise, discovered that ulcers were a virus that could be eradicated in weeks. The expert doctors told the Australian doctors to shut their gobs. There was only one problem. The Australian doctors were right.

Experts can lose their mojo by being too close to the problem. When he broke the Watergate story, Bob Woodward was a “nobody.” His determined pursuit of the story generated from his “outsider” status. (The experts said it wasn’t a story.) Now the Vice President gives superstar Woodward unlimited access. What stories has he broken lately?

Okay, now that I’ve shaken their tree a little – experts aren’t “all that” – let’s get to the area that bothers me most.

Opinions.

Experts offering opinions. Does that make them expert opinions?

Let me ask you something. What is “expert opinion” anyway? Is it someone who’s an expert at delivering an opinion? It could be. Those are the experts on cable TV. Maybe that’s why they’re never held accountable when their opinions are wrong. They’re not being judged on that. They’re only being judged on the way they deliver them. (And the size of the audience that tunes in.)

Traditionally, however, “expert opinion” refers to an expert delivering an opinion concerning the area in which the expert is an expert. That was a tedious sentence, but there you have it. It’s experts opining on their area of expertise. Condi Rice on world diplomacy. John Madden on football. And Little Earl, on the demise of the four-camera situation comedy.

Condi on football? Not interested. Madden on sitcoms – who cares? Me on anything but sitcoms – “whoooooooh.” That’s the sound of the lonely wind whistling across the desert.

In my blog, it always comes back to me, in this case, my antipathy towards “experts” monopolizing the airwaves. But beneath that antipathy, there’s a thought. The thought that intelligent people, though not experts, may harbor illuminating insights and provocative points of view.

I’m not talking about the “agenda people.” We know where they stand already, from their media-saturating surrogates. I’m talking about regular people (and I’m not excluding college graduates) with something to say.

Regular people – who can see the forest despite the trees. Unconnected people, who don’t know a soul, and who don’t want a thing. People like that might even discover something the experts have missed.

A liberating perspective.

An invigorating idea.

The truth about where fish go in the winter.

5 comments:

kandiyohi said...

Wow, it was liberating just reading that! For a second there, I wondered if Uncle Grumpy might have the mic, but no...it's his brother's son (at least I'm assuming).

The thing about these expert opinionators, is they are really distracting from the REAL NEWS. In the past couple days I have received some amazing facts about our economy, numbers that I could trust and digest, maps showing rivers, analysts explaining why left is more at risk than right.

Each time an opinionator steps in, I tune out immediately. It doesn't take long for a drop of sewage to spoil the whole well, and myself...I might have to depend exclusively on tap water someday, I want to enjoy the Peregrino while it lasts.

Rinaldo said...

Still, where fish go in the winter isn't a matter of opinion. I think I would want an expert to inform me about that, assuming I wanted to know in the first place.

growingupartists said...

And God bless you, Earl. God bless Dr. M, too!

michael said...

Your bit about experts was okay, but I can't give it much credence as it's not about sitcoms - you're outside your bubble of expertise here.

But please, tell me where the fish go in the winter! The suspense is killing me.

Tom Joad said...

While all true, the oppposite I think has become a HUGE problem in the world...that is, non-experts that THINK they are experts.

Just because some guy can make a pie chart on a powerpoint, doesn't mean they know how to think critically, or even about the right questions. But those dazzling displays makes them THINK they have it all figured out.

Seriously. People think "common sense" qualifies them to weigh in on global warming, and many other issues, without really doing the homework.

Experts can often be seen as egg-headed people who overlook the simple, but that is the exception. Computers more than anything have given folk the idea that they no longer need "experts", but just as I can use photoshop, doesn't mean I have artistic sense enough to make something interesting with it.