Monday, September 5, 2011
Forget about all that. Who are you?
Trying to figure out how the world works can’t be done, and yet we’re all hardwired to try from the get-go. And maybe that’s why we keep listening to experts for answers instead of turning to our personal experience.
This caught my attention twice last week. The first was a discussion with some friends in the US.
I’d sent a bit of research to my friends that seemed to provide a clear view of the global economy. The research conflicted with their worldview only in the fact that it gave a broader perspective. But instead of reviewing it, they were more interested in who authored it. And the entire discussion got tossed out the window.
But the source of the information happened to be quite credible. It’s just that he was neither a famous nor leading expert—making his views easier to dismiss. And what annoyed me was how much the quality of the message seemed to be influenced by the stature of the source.
The second example was a call I got about last week’s column. The caller was a former local businessperson who wanted to discuss the future of the region, and wondered if I was interested in meeting. So we did. And he had a lot of ideas and some great advice for both me and for the local economy. He also set up a few meetings with his old acquaintances here. But I got the sense that his reputation was of more interest to everyone than the actual solutions, and that his reputation would influence the outcomes of his discussions far more than his actual ideas. And I think he was also aware of this.
So what’s more important, I wondered, the message or the messenger?
From a purely rational point of view, information is information and facts are facts. The quality of the data should stand on its own. But from a human perspective everything is relative, especially when facts degenerate into opinion—as in the climate change debate. The facts tell us that our climate is changing. We learn this from internationally respected scientists. But many of our equally influential business people dispute whether these changes are caused by human activity, suggesting that these changes are just natural cycles. Who are we to believe?
The ongoing nuclear hazard from Fukushima is good example. The Canadian government has done little to no monitoring—to the public’s knowledge—of the amount of radioactive fallout in the rainfall dropping on Canada. But one ordinary guy bought himself a handheld Geiger counter and is travelling, on his own nickel, across the country from west to east testing rainfall, and his findings are a bit frightening to say the least. But again, who is he, anyway? And where are the experts on this?
On another newsfeed I read that a suspiciously high number of Atlantic lottery jackpots being won by retailers and insiders. Common sense would say there’s something wrong. The Atlantic Lottery Corporation (ALC) tells us that there’s no reason for concern, even though the rate of insider wins has skyrocketed by almost 300 percent in the last year, and lottery retailers have been winning jackpots of over $10,000 at a rate three times a month over the past four years.
Fortunately, mathematician Maureen Tingley at the University of New Brunswick thinks that the data is “wacky” and has called for more information. But who is Tingley, anyway? I don’t know who she is, nor did the news report tell us. So I checked her out. She’s the director of UNB’s Applied Statistics Centre. I think we’d be more inclined to trust Ms. Tingley than the ALC public relations department, wouldn’t you?
We need experts because we have a difficult time trusting our own common sense. The problems just seem too big. We’ve even handed our own personal problems over to the experts: the educators, the psychologists, the TV self-improvement gurus. And the more highly-credentialed the sources, the more inclined we are to believe them.
So how do we know when to choose between our common sense and the expert’s view?
It all comes down to two things: motivation and specialization. Motivation has to do with what’s behind the big picture, such as who’s selling what? Who has the most to gain or lose? The key to common sense lies in understanding the motivation behind any big decision. For example, why might large corporations debunk climate change and oppose climate change legislation? Why might the U.S. invade oil-rich Iraq but not impoverished Ethiopia? When it comes to general trends, you’ll hear a lot from the experts—but you might want to listen to your own common sense.
When it comes to specifics we’re much better off trusting experts. Dentistry or knee surgery is never a pleasant do-it-yourself venture any more than data-mining ALC’s win ratios would be. We need experts to help us solve very specific problems.
So here’s a clue. When someone asks (or hints at) “who are you?” you might want to think about their motivation for asking. And then address whether the situation calls for specific knowledge or just plain old common sense. And if it’s the latter, you owe it to yourself to trust your instincts.
Because in the end it isn’t who you are, it’s what you do.