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Expertise Matters, Opinions Are Easy

May 22, 2020

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Now more than ever, respecting expertise and thinking through our opinions before pushing an agenda may be critical to our short and long-term survival and success. It troubles me greatly when people make blanket statements like, “you can’t trust the media,” or “experts are often wrong, “or “you don’t know who to believe anymore.” This simply isn’t true. There are still many reliable objective information resources available. It’s almost as if people have decided not to accept what they don’t want to believe. Or, even worse, they don’t want to do the work to form an educated opinion. Being uninformed or lazy is not a badge of honor.

I respect expertise. Committing one’s life and career to a public service profession is admirable. No one becomes a thought leader or expert overnight. It takes decades of demanding work and study to claim this mantle. What I have little respect for are social media rabble-rousers and talking heads, with a minimum depth of understanding, who speak as if their opinions hold equal weight to those who do know something about a topic. Instead of pushing an agenda, they should be asking clarifying questions and seeking to first understand what they are talking about. The number of present-day pundits who talk over their guests with much more expertise is not only alarming but dangerous. Corresponding twitter attacks are even more irksome.

It is certainly okay to have a strong opinion, but as the saying goes, “you aren’t entitled to your own facts.” There are no such thing as alternative facts. When an adult starts muttering this nonsense, they instantly assume childlike intellectual status in my mind. This may not even be fair to children, who at least typically have an innate curiosity to learn more about the world around them. Just because you feel things are a certain way doesn’t make it true, even if you really want it to be so. An adult mind can separate fact from self-imposed fiction.

Yes, fields do advance, and new material does become known. The scientific method never claims to foster infallibility. It just pushes us to do the arduous work of testing our assumptions in a framework designed to achieve the best results. As knowledge in each field progresses so does the interpretation of what we truly understand. This is a good thing. The keyword is “progresses.” The objective is to never go backward in our thinking. We can’t already know that is which is not yet known. However, we can evolve our thinking by making educated hypotheses and using scientific rigor to evaluate them.  We need to leverage expertise, not resist it!

When it comes to the coronavirus, let us let the pandemic and public health experts guide the discussion. There seems to be a genuine consensus on what we are dealing with and how to deal with it by them. When it comes to managing the economic consequences of the COVID-19 fallout, let us have the true macro and micro economists talk us through the impact of various scenarios. Our Fed Chairman might be a good place to start.  Ph.D. Economists may not always agree with one another but let us listen to their debate (and check the past accuracy of their predictions). We can also put together panels of successful long-term CEOs to inform us regarding the business implications of economic decision-making. Lastly, it would be helpful to heed the expertise and guidance of bio-medical ethics experts and other acknowledged philosophical thinkers on the moral implications of our decision making. We are living in a moment with life-or-death decision-making consequences. Public policy leaders are being forced to make some tough choices. The way people are throwing around the term herd immunity is quite disconcerting.  People aren’t just statistics, especially when they reside in vulnerable populations.

I know where my narrow expertise lies and that is the field of leadership development and to a smaller extent business strategy. I am comfortable that the decades spent honing my perspective in this field is of some value. And, I certainly have some thoughts on how we are being led now, but that is a topic for another post. I have been cautious about pushing my views regarding the current pandemic environment because they are only imperfectly formed opinions, and this is a serious matter that begs deference to hard forged wisdom.  Instead, I have shared information created by reputable resources that might help us laymen become better informed.  I am thankful that so many thoughtful experienced professionals are contributing to the dialogue.  I am confident that they will work together to help us find our way through this tragedy.

Yes, I still believe in the NIH, The CDC, The WHO, and Johns Hopkins and Harvard Medical Schools when it comes to public health issues, certainly more than Tucker Carlson or Chris Cuomo. The only thing most medical doctors and scientists want right now is an effective scalable solution to our crisis that minimizes the loss of human life. On the contrary, most prime time media personalities and op-ed journalists exist to present a scripted point of view palatable to a targeted audience. Their goal is to drive ratings and sell content not to present the truth in an objective manner. When something is paid for, it typically comes at a cost.

Please, before you post a strong opinion or forward an article on something you know little about, think it through first. If the person you turn to for information has limited experience with the topic and always tells you what you want to hear, then don’t believe it. If they make the person who disagrees with their opinion, the enemy, then discount their analysis. If they talk over experts, ignore them in return. If they always provide argument friendly statistics, then check their validity.  Far too many people are sharing incorrect information that doesn’t pass the smallest test of scrutiny.

What’s sad about all of this is that we do have good reliable data. There are experts who actually know what they are talking about and who are honest when they don’t know the answer (imagine that). There are esteemed organizations and institutions that have spent considerable time and money delving into their knowledge missions and who disseminate useful information. Let’s all take a step back, let the experts do their jobs, seek first to understand before wielding the social media hammer, push our public officials to elevate our discourse, and be more humble in our own thoughts, words, and deeds.

Expertise matters! Opinions are easy and often dangerous.

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