My Defense of Experts Against the Leading Expert
By Bryan Caplan
Forget “the Best of 2007”; Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment may well be the best book ever written on political psychology. (See here for an earlier discussion). I say this even though I’m a big defender of experts, and Tetlock’s book is usually interpreted as a grand debunking of experts’ pretensions.
How can I live with this tension? Check out my review essay of Tetlock’s book in the latest issue of Critical Review (sorry, no online access yet). Its thrust:
Tetlock underestimates experts in general, and does too little to discourage demagogues from misinterpreting his results.
How does Tetlock underestimate the experts? In a nutshell, his questions are too hard for experts, and too easy for chimps. Tetlock deliberately avoids asking experts what he calls “dumb questions.” But it is on these so-called dumb questions that experts’ predictions shine, relative to random guessing. Conversely, by partitioning possible responses into reasonable categories… Tetlock saved the chimps from severe embarrassment that experts would have avoided on their own.
Furthermore, even if the experts are no better than Tetlock finds, he does too little to discourage demagogues from misinterpreting his results as a vindication of populism. There is only one major instance in which Tetlock compares the accuracy of experts to the accuracy of laymen. The result: The laymen (undergraduate Berkeley psychology majors – quite elite in absolute terms) were far inferior not only to experts, but to chimps.
As the book is written, it is too easy for a casual reader to think that Tetlock’s main point is that political experts are no better than astrologers. If I were Tetlock, I would have tried harder to immunize readers from this misinterpretation. Above all, I would have repeatedly emphasized that “The experts have much to learn, but they also have much to teach,” or at least “However bad experts seem, laymen are far worse.”
P.S. Don’t miss Stephen Miller‘s “Conservatives and Liberals on Economics: Expected Differences, Surprising Similarities,” in the same issue of CR. Here is wisdom:
Liberals and Democrats are usually more likely than conservatives and Republicans to favor government intervention in the economy, and are more suspicious of business. However, the differences between conservatives and liberals are often fairly small, and the data indicate that conservatives, too, are wary of free markets, bordering on being hostile to them – especially when it comes to particulars, rather than abstractions.
Update: Steve Miller points out that:
There is a gated, but free link:
Click on “free sample copy” and register — that should open up the whole issue.