Do the Experts Know Anything?

With Brexit, faith in supposed specialists suffers another blow.

They certainly got this one wrong.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

This has been a terrible day for experts.

Economic professionals were overwhelmingly of the opinion that leaving the European Union would hurt the United Kingdom. And until a few hours ago, the consensus of public opinion experts -- at least if one uses prediction markets as a proxy -- was that voters would in the end decide to stay in the EU.

Didn’t work out that way, did it? Brexit won. Take that, experts!

QuickTake Why Britain Voted to Leave the EU

The Brexit referendum isn’t the only topic on which experts -- people who possess knowledge that most others don’t -- have been on the defensive. Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, for example, can fairly be seen as a rejection of expertise in all its forms. And long before the Trump phenomenon, critics in the U.S. were gleefully attacking the expert consensus on everything from climate change to vaccinations.

Why are experts having such a tough time?  From my current perspective (that of a generalist business-and-economics journalist sitting at a desk in the Bloomberg News bureau in Beijing, which I am visiting this week), three main reasons stand out.

1. Experts are wrong a lot. This seems especially true lately when it comes to predicting election results (cases in point: Brexit and the U.S. Republican primaries). But there have been other recent examples, including the collapse of the scientific consensus that fat and cholesterol are really bad for you. The inability of most macroeconomists to admit the possibility of a global financial crisis before one struck in 2008 has to count as a big expert fail as well. 

Part of this is just the nature of expert knowledge. You form a hypothesis on the basis of the available evidence, then new evidence shows it to be wrong. That’s not a bad thing -- it’s how knowledge progresses. 

Still, there have been enough cases of specialists succumbing to groupthink or cognitive biases that the possibility that an expert consensus is a load of nonsense can’t be dismissed. This is especially true when, as political scientist Philip Tetlock has documented, being wrong again and again doesn’t necessarily harm one's career prospects. Sometimes it even helps, because dead certainty makes for good TV.

Add in rapid political and economic changes, which increase uncertainty and thus make expert prediction harder, and you end up with what might seem like an epidemic of expert error.

2. Experts are elitist. This is to some extent inevitable -- expertise requires some people to know more than other people. But in an age of fracture, with economic inequality much greater in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere than it was a few decades ago and people increasingly sorting themselves geographically by income and worldview, the "best" have become more removed from the rest.

This affects public perception: People who feel more distant from experts may find it harder to trust them, even when they're right. But it also probably affects experts’ judgment. If economists had been as adversely affected by increased trade with China as manufacturing workers in some parts of the U.S. were, for example, they might have gotten around to examining the effects a little faster.  

3. Nonexperts can be pretty susceptible to nonsense. Yes, expert opinion is flawed. Yet especially when it comes to complex subjects, it’s usually less flawed than nonexpert opinion.

For example: Several U.K. newspapers, with the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph in the lead, discovered years ago that exaggerated or even invented stories about the European Union were popular with readers (the Economist has a nice chart of this phenomenon, while former Times of London Brussels correspondent Martin Fletcher penned a New York Times op-ed blaming it all on Boris Johnson’s years as the Telegraph’s man in Brussels). As a result, many of those who voted to leave the European Union probably made that decision based on made-up stuff.

It’s an expert’s job not to fall for fabrications like that. Experts have biases and make mistakes, but the very act of gaining expertise usually makes them less vulnerable to misinformation. Most people don’t have time to develop that sort of informed skepticism -- which is one reason why experts are so essential.

Still, I don’t think proclaiming that experts should be heeded more is going to change any minds. It’s up to the experts to address their own flaws first.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.