It’s Right to be Wrong – From time to time

freedmanwrong

I haven’t had a pleasant experience with experts.

Every academic year, we teachers undergo a battery of talks and training seminars. In all of them we are graced by the presence of people well-credentialed in their field. Most of them are PHDs from the University of the Philippines College of Education; if not from UP, then it doesn’t matter where as long as they have a PHD. Yet whenever they’re introduced and we are treated to a litany of which papers they’ve written, which studies they’ve authored, and how despite the degrees they enjoy nothing else but being a mother, then I am filled with an emotion that shouldn’t come when I have experts about to tell me how to be a better teacher.

I am filled with dread.

I think, here goes two hours of my life I’m never getting back again. Here is a talk about things I already know. Here is another crappy PowerPoint; I think it’s going to be more exciting to watch paint dry. And here is another attempt to put a new spin on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory – you’d think that education experts, the people who should be most invested in new knowledge – have something fresher than a model that dates back to 1983.

I am most frustrated with the cognitive dissonance of it all. Cognitive dissonance is you warning a friend that it’s going to rain today, but you don’t bother to bring an umbrella. Cognitive dissonance is a person who hates the idea of a second Aquino presidency, but doesn’t go out to vote. And cognitive dissonance is your friend texting you about how much she hates technology and can’t stand it; then she tweets it too. This is not about hypocrisy, but about simultaneously holding on to a contradiction you may or may not be aware of.

Case in point, I listened to one education expert’s research study about the role of ICT (Internet communication technology) in public school education, but she took awhile to get started because she couldn’t figure out how to run the PowerPoint slideshow. (And when it came out, voila! Stock template.) Worse, I’ve listened to many speakers introduced as someone ‘who knows the field by heart’, and yet read from the PowerPoint during the presentation. Even worse, there have been many expert teachers who have come to tell us how to be an inspirational teacher, yet their talks put me to sleep. And lastly, there was one expert teacher who talked to us about how to conduct ourselves in the classroom but prefaced her talk with how she hasn’t stepped in the classroom for twenty years – she’s been busy with research – and so she sorely missed it.

I am really put off by the disconnection between what they say and what they do, and that raises a lot of questions about their credibility and reliability. I couldn’t even get myself to say that they are intelligent people; learned yes, but not intelligent. Definitely not bloody brilliant.

And hence, it was with much excitement that I picked up “Wrong” by David H. Freedman. Subtitled, “Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them”, it piqued my curiosity. I figured that I’d pick up a thing or two about why I am so displeased with my experience with experts, and that perhaps I get closer to defining what I mean when I say that I seek a master instead.

Coming from a science journalism background, Freedman unsurprisingly dealt with a lot of issues about scientific research, peer reviews, and reporting. In the context of the American media where the latest products are tagged with the ‘hottest research’, Freedman was out to discredit them all. He cautions us that the solutions which claim to be ‘definitive’ and ‘easy’ are hardly the right solutions, and that just because a product is backed up by research doesn’t mean it had the right kind of research. He illustrates that true ‘expert advice’ is far more detailed, contextual, carries with it qualifying statements and caveats, and is often unsurprising. We must greet with skepticism anything that says “the world will change right this moment if you follow these seven easy, time-saving steps!”

Or should it read — “7 Steps to Save the World Now!” Complete with a picture of a Brazilian model dressed as mother nature.

But I digress.

When I first scanned the table of contents, I looked forward most to the chapter on the Internet. I’ve been bothered lately by the ballooning profligacy of people online claiming to be an authority on whichever issue they claim to write about for the day. I am most alarmed by the rise of amateur, un-credentialed bloggers into the ranks of journalists, political commentators, and policy makers. Indeed, the Internet has ushered in previously unseen levels of democracy and emancipation, but it sure has huge quality control issues.

But Freedman doesn’t venture much into this territory. As far as the Internet is concerned, he talks about how genuine advice is elusive in Wikipedia (seriously – who goes to Wikipedia for advice?) and how open source collaboration works for wikis and operating systems, but not much else. He gives some online forums credit with helping him solve a car problem, but wonders why everything can’t be learned from them online forums (I don’t wonder). I feel that he could have been more incisive and talked about the bloggeratti, but perhaps by this I am asking for a different book.

Ironically, my biggest issue with the book is its skeptical tone. (And isn’t that a pretty cognitively dissonant thing to say in this skeptical piece?) He admits to being guilty of selective bias; the interviews and data most relevant to his writing the book are those which helped him prove his point. He also confesses to the ecological fallacy – just because his sample proved his point doesn’t mean that all experts are wrong. As a matter of fact, he salutes their contributions to human civilization and achievement, and that through the centuries we have sought their guiding hand and are better for it.

Therefore, my issue with the book’s skepticism has more to do with the feeling that the book itself is inconclusive. Yes, we can now tell apart genuine expert advice from phony ones. But why are experts wrong? What leads to all this wrongness despite their expertise?

Here is where I make some suggestions.

Perhaps, it is in the nature of information to be incomplete. Nobel prize winning economists Akerlof, Spence and Stiglitz posited that economic actors (read: everyone) make decisions based on asymmetrical information. What leads some to gain and others to lose in economic exchange is the fact that some people know more than others, and this leads to relationships going awry. Extending this analysis to expertise, the layman is often left to take an expert’s word for it, and that the expert has more to gain in keeping their relationship that way. Technologies such as the Internet and older traditions such as journalism help lessen this asymmetry and to some point even annihilate it.

Looking back at my experience with experts, I realize that a lot of them are victims of information asymmetry too. Despite declaring principles of globalism and interdependence, Philippine universities still tend to be very closed systems. What the PHDs read and write about are the same material and topics that PHDs in the past have read and written about. I can’t expect much innovation from a system that perpetuates itself. Hence, it is not surprising that the most rewarding talks about education I’ve attended – yes, some have been rewarding – were delivered not by education experts. For instance, I learned most about being a better teacher from a student, a business tycoon, a lawyer, and a classical dancer. Learning from experts outside the field of education was far more fresh, and hence interesting, stimulating, and thought provoking. And to be fair, there have been a couple of credible PHDs too – often foreign-educated but more importantly not just studying their field but practicing and living it every day.

But perhaps an even more fundamental consideration to make than information asymmetry is the nature of science itself. Defined as a system of knowledge and processes that test and investigate the truth, it is definitely misleading for one person to assume that what one knows is definitive, uncontestable, and final. Moreover, it is even more misleading for anyone to assume the same of what anyone else is saying. Indeed, some ‘truths’ are more self-evident than others but that is only because others have been wrong in the past and they have been righted.

Hence, that is one hope I have for the book. Not only does it make the average Joe smarter and wiser in dealing with smart and wise people, but that whatever wrongs there are in the system are righted. Perhaps you could say that this is too much to expect of a relatively thin paperback volume, but you could be wrong.

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