Your favorite example of experts getting it wrong
March 13, 2009 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing an essay on the blindness of experts. Kremlinologists didn't see the collapse of the Soviet Union coming. Economists thought U.S. home prices would keep going up forever. Can you think of more examples?
posted by markcmyers to Law & Government (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well the crash of 1929 was unpredicted, and we still don't have any real consensus as to 1) why it happened, and 2) how the economy recovered. Sure, there's a popular story about that, but as the saying goes, if you laid every in the economist in the world end to end, you wouldn't reach a consensus.

Actually, that's pretty much true about every economic issue you care to name. As a method of describing the world which enables us to understand what's going on, economics is pretty much a bust.
posted by valkyryn at 8:36 AM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Economists thought U.S. home prices would keep going up forever.

Not to go off topic here, but people tend to say things like "economists thought," but really only one set of economists think anything at any given time. There are so many schools of economic thought that I assure there's never been full consensus. Plenty of economists and those interested in economic policy were openly talking about the recession we're currently experiencing, years ago. Arguably, any economist who thought value would only ever go up for pretty well anything is not a very "good" economist. But I digress.

A paper about "experts getting it wrong" will be prone to generalizations and a number of fallacies, I think. Can you post your thesis statement here, so we/I can get a better idea of what it is you're writing about? Just from the little bit you've given us here, I think you may have difficulty writing from such a seemingly broad foundation.

In particular, you need to define some things, such as who is and who isn't considered an expert of something.
posted by metalheart at 8:39 AM on March 13, 2009


Well the former Bush administration was rotted through with "experts" on geopolitics who were pretty much blinded by ideology. Should be plenty of research material that you can find on these individuals.

Didn't they think that US soldiers would be met with flowers in Iraq? That the rest of the world would sign on to their middle eastern adventure? That there were weapons of mass destruction? Etc, etc.
posted by sic at 8:43 AM on March 13, 2009


Didn't they think that US soldiers would be met with flowers in Iraq? That the rest of the world would sign on to their middle eastern adventure? That there were weapons of mass destruction? Etc, etc.

I think you're going to have to make a HUGE distinction in your paper between those who were actually blinded...and those who were personally motivated to flat out LIE to get people to believe them.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:46 AM on March 13, 2009




Well the former Bush administration was rotted through with "experts" on geopolitics who were pretty much blinded by ideology.

Even some liberals like Matthew Yglesias were nominally for the war in Iraq.

I think you're going to have to make a HUGE distinction in your paper between those who were actually blinded...and those who were personally motivated to flat out LIE to get people to believe them.

Bush administration officials did think that the war would be a success, electorally and otherwise. They wouldn't have pursued it if they didn't. They certainly didnt think that the endgame would involve them worrying about being indicted for war crimes.
posted by goethean at 9:04 AM on March 13, 2009


Along the lines of failed technology predictions, here's a good paper: Failed technology futures: pitfalls and lessons from a historical survey.

"Experts getting it wrong" could be re-stated as "experts underestimated the risk of a major event". There is a huge literature on risk assessment; I am just barely familiar enough with it to know that it exists. Here's an interesting chapter on biases in estimating the risk of rare events which could be a good starting point: Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks [pdf]. And from the recommended reading given in that paper, a book: Judgement under uncertainty: heuristics and biases.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:04 AM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder how many political pundits in January 07 thought that Obama would win the Presidency.
posted by goethean at 9:09 AM on March 13, 2009


Have you read Nassem Nicholas Taleb's book "Fooled by Randomness" or "The Black Swan"? He has a chapter or so on "the expert problem": the one constant in life is randomness, and experts never plan for randomness. Look at all the economic forecastors who seldom predict anything that actually comes to pass.

A link by a detractor.
posted by Dukat at 9:24 AM on March 13, 2009


Y2K
posted by mkultra at 9:34 AM on March 13, 2009


See the New Yorker article Everybody's an Expert and the book it discusses, Expert Political Judgment. Basically, the book shows that 'people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables—are no better than the rest of us'.
posted by driveler at 9:37 AM on March 13, 2009


In WWII no one saw the buildup of German forces that led to the Battle of The Bulge. Neither did the Germans predict the D-Day landings in Normandy.
posted by Gungho at 10:10 AM on March 13, 2009


Bill Gates said that we would never need more than 64K RAM?
posted by Drasher at 10:18 AM on March 13, 2009


In the mid to late 1990's virtually everyone thought Apple was doooooomed:

Nathan Myhrvold Microsoft’s chief technology officer, 6/97: “The NeXT purchase is too little too late. Apple is already dead.”

The Financial Times, 7/11/97: “Apple no longer plays a leading role in the $200 billion personal computer industry. ‘The idea that they’re going to go back to the past to hit a big home run…is delusional,’ says Dave Winer, a software developer.”
posted by Scoo at 10:34 AM on March 13, 2009


Bill Kristol on just about anything.
posted by allelopath at 10:37 AM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:41 AM on March 13, 2009


I don't know what class this essay is for, but I agree with metalheart: your thesis is way too broad. At least you should whittle your focus down to economists, political scientists, or some other brand of expert in the business of predicting the future. That's just a start of what you need to do to sharpen your thesis.

It sounds like you're starting with a strongly-held personal belief and now you are looking around for random examples to back it up. That's probably not the purpose of the assignment, although I obviously don't know for sure. You need to seek help from a t.a., writing center or the prof. in order to verify your approach makes sense for the assignment.

If you don't do that, you should prepare yourself to get a (low) grade that you didn't see coming.
posted by vincele at 11:35 AM on March 13, 2009


I too was going to recommend the work of Philip Tetlock (It is his book that driveler is pointing to above). That is one of his main areas of research, namely the inaccuracy of "expert" predictions.
posted by bove at 11:38 AM on March 13, 2009


In many of these cases, there wasn't consensus among experts on the wrong opinion. Before the Challenger disaster, for example, NASA engineers tried to stop the launch, but they were overruled. Unfortunately, they were exactly right about what ended up happening.

For the economy, at any given time you can always find bulls and bears making dire predictions, warnings, or conversely hyping success and explaining why the usual rules don't apply and there will be no bust this time. Which set of experts is 'blind,' and why?
posted by expialidocious at 12:00 PM on March 13, 2009


Bill Gates said that we would never need more than 64K RAM?
It was 640K, and there's no evidence he ever said it.

/not MS fanboi
posted by coolguymichael at 12:11 PM on March 13, 2009


Check out The Experts Speak. It's full of this kind of stuff.
posted by Gorgik at 12:32 PM on March 13, 2009


As recently as 2005, the director of the International Energy Agency routinely dismissed peak oil researchers as "doomsayers." In late 2008, the chief economist of the IEA, under pointed questioning from The Guardian's George Monbiot, admitted that the first real systemic study of the world's largest oil fields the IEA had ever conducted (!) yielded an official estimate of 2020 as the likely date of oil's global production peak.

Seriously, watch that Monbiot video and marvel at the kind of vague outdated "assumptions" upon which we've built our entire global energy system. (And read here for similar revelations about the "expertise" that's gone into tracking our coal supply.)
posted by gompa at 12:39 PM on March 13, 2009


Which set of experts is 'blind,' and why?

As a professor this is the kind of question I'd expect your examples to substantiate in an essay about the blindness of experts. Some of these suggested books sound like great places to begin thinking through where experts go wrong and how it happens.
posted by vincele at 4:38 AM on March 14, 2009


Gungho, Rommel did predict Allied landings in Normandy, just not the particular day that they happened.
posted by Grinder at 1:59 PM on March 14, 2009


He may have, but by that time he was no longer pulling the strings.
posted by Gungho at 8:50 AM on March 15, 2009


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