David H. Freedman, Wrong: Why Experts* Keep Failing Us And How to Know When Not to Trust Them (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010), 304 pp., $25.99.
Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (New York: Ecco, 2010), 416 pp., $26.99.
Charles Seife, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception (New York: Viking Adult, 2010), 304 pp., $25.95.
Chafe though we might at our helplessness, even the most abrasive cynics cannot avoid relying on various species of experts--economists or oncologists or climatologists or ...--in forming opinions. The world is just too complex to decode it on our own. And as the world has grown evermore complicated, there has been a corresponding surge in demand for metaexpertise--for those who promise to guide us through the intellectual labyrinth, distinguishing the snake-oil salesmen from the fact profferers. Of course, just because we want something does not mean that it exists. But it is a good bet that people will pop up claiming they can deliver the answers gift wrapped tomorrow morning.
Thank goodness, it would seem then, that there are three new books by accomplished journalists David Freedman, Kathryn Schulz and Charles Seife to help us laymen figure out who is engaging in trickery-by-data-distortion and who not, so we can all better decode whom and what to trust.
I am often pigeonholed as an "expert on experts" because I have a long-standing interest in the (rather large) gaps between the confidence of political pundits and their forecasting accuracy. In reviewing these books by experts on experts, one could say I have morphed into an even-higher life form: an expert on "experts on experts."
Before ascending further on the Great Ladder of Being (all it would take is for a blogger to review this review--and for me to reply--to move up to Rung Number Five), I had better stop the infinite regress. Why not start by asking: How much traction can we get from heeding these authors' advice in coping with that recurring challenge of modern existence--separating the wheat from the chaff?
Each author offers what appear to be sensible, sometimes deeply insightful, guidelines. Seife warns us in Proofiness about how easily we can be seduced by an assortment of specious statistical arguments--and about the hazards of Potemkin numbers that give weak arguments an aura of credibility. He notes especially that we are never more vulnerable to this sort of "proofiness" than when false claims of precision cut along convenient ideological lines. In essence, when experts' sureties affirm our own beliefs (Democratic, Republican or otherwise), we are quick to take them on faith.
But we should be wary of almost all "facts" delivered to us (whether they jibe with our vision of reality or not), for as David Freedman documents in Wrong, experts know a lot less than they claim--and that this is, as Marxists were fond of saying, no accident. There are such powerful and perverse institutional incentives for experts to overclaim the validity of their data and their conclusions, we should not be shocked that many ambitious scientists succumb to the I-have-figured-out-all-the-answers temptation (indeed, the surprising thing is perhaps that so many resist the siren calls of media acclaim).
And Schulz explores in her own subtly seductive way the experience of "Being Wrong"; why it is so hard to admit error but how, with the help of brilliant philosophers and clever perceptual illusions, we might learn to stop taking ourselves so damned seriously and embrace William James's liberating insight: "Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf."
It is hard to argue with writers as attractively open-minded as this threesome--and I …