Via Economic Policy Journal

By Robert Wenzel

At, Dr. Walter Block has posted an interesting email exchange with a San Francisco person named Robert (not me).

I am going to butt into this exchange because I think it is an important question and discussion.
The essence of the exchange is: Should we trust experts given what we know about the division of labor, that we can’t know everything ourselves, despite the fact that many experts just hold popular theories that are often incorrect?

I am going to charge that the question is framed in a Keynesian fashion, that is, it is a severe aggregation of all questions and experts, severe aggregation being the Keynesian part.

We don’t treat all questions and experts the same.

For example, if I am in a city I am not familiar with, I may stop a person on the sidewalk and ask for directions to a street I can’t seem to locate.

The individual may give me correct directions or not. But if he happens to be a local  (an expert), chances are I will get good directions. If I get bad directions, the loss to me is minor, I will find out soon enough.

Thus, one factor that must be considered when checking with an expert is the loss involved in getting a wrong answer. A sidewalk encounter that results in bad directions is no big deal.

However, if I had a serious illness, I wouldn’t just look up the name of the first doctor I found after a Google search and go with him because he was an expert. There is a bell curve when it comes to medical understanding amongst medical practitioners. If I have a serious illness, I am going to do everything I can to find a physician way on the right tail of the curve.

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With a serious medical issue, I would do some studying up myself on the problem and then probably talk to 10 different doctors to understand their approach, and what they tell me to advance my knowledge about the illness and the treatment, and what they would recommend as a treatment.

It also must be kept in mind that there is a difference between the ability to judge competence. If I want to know the weather and there is a television meteorologist who has, from my own experience, been very accurate in his forecasts, I will likely rely on this expert’s forecast when determining how to dress for the day.

It is different for medical treatment, where an easy exact comparable sample may not be available. It’s a complex science (even more so than meteorology).

Thus, reliance on experts is dependent on the risk of doing so and the ease at which competence can be judged.

In the medical field, because it is a complex science, you can get a lot of bad theories and most doctors are just sheep when it comes to how they treat their patients. As the emailer to Dr. Block points out, the general paradigms can be way off but he then points to what might be proper medical perspectives. In other words, there seem to be checks against bad popular theories, with outlier information if you look for it. Yes, the mainstream physician is just going to follow what he has been taught with a very heavily medical-pharmaceutical-government complex influence but there are outlier experts, and when a proper answer is very important, the hunt for the right expert is a very worthwhile effort

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It is not that we should or shouldn’t rely on experts as much as how much time should we devote to evaluating experts given the risks involved in getting it wrong. And admittedly, the government influence on experts in many fields makes it much more difficult to find sound advice.