“Experts” seek to exploit the fact that many people are confused by choices, and want someone to handle big problems so we don’t have to be responsible for the outcome.

Trusting the Experts to Get It Right

Aug. 21, 2015
Appeals based on “expertise” are insufficient for evaluation. We need to evaluate character. Angling for best effects Seeking “suitability” Temperament, judgment, commitment

It seems that midway through a financial quarter is the time when corporations announce their big changes: new executives and managers are installed, capital investment plans are outlined, and organizational changes (takeovers, sales, restructurings) are explained. The past quarter has seen plenty of this in the forging and related manufacturing industries.

The simple explanation for this is that corporations and their decision-makers want the changes they institute to affect their positions (stock valuations, executive positions) only in a positive way – so they aim to separate the reporting and analysis of their own decisions from the decisions that analysts and investors may make in response. It’s not irresponsible of them, but it exploits the fact that many of us will defer to “experts” on matters that seem complex.

Forging companies and other manufacturers compete for the best minds, the most talented managers, and the most resourceful executives, because they want the best decision-makers in place to develop, improve, and expand their enterprises. Academic records and work experience are invariably listed when someone’s appointment to new position is announced. Often, past associations and signature accomplishments are described.  The decision-maker’s expertise is thus “established.” If you or I have not the same list of accomplishments, how can we criticize any particular decision that’s been made?

There is some of this confusion going on in our political melodrama now: we’re many months from having the chance to offer our evaluation of the choices being made now, and so we’re being offered the biographical and career histories of dozens of candidates. They’re all claiming their own particular expertise is the one that will be successful, for them, and effective, for the constituents they aim to represent. Some candidates even promise to have a historic effect that will transform and elevate our circumstances — a particularly deceptive melding of career accomplishment and biographical circumstance into some irrefutable expertise. Such arguments have been used in the business world, too, but there it’s more of a conversation starter than proof of expert status.

In the business world it’s common to install as an executive someone who has held a range of positions within the enterprise over several years or decades: he or she knows the organization, the people who manage and staff it, the competition and the challenges, and the customers that are so essential to success. A similar appeal to “suitability” is common in politics, but in the current cycle we have a surprising number of candidates whose proposition is more or less the opposite: their expertise is based in some separate area of accomplishment. Like a financial guru or management consultant arriving to turn around a manufacturing enterprise, they’re going to shake up our political establishment and make it perform the right way, the fair and honest way.

These experts are playing on our confusion, too, appealing to our frustration with the inefficiency (or, if you prefer, inequality) in our society and government, and the anxiety we rightly feel about ongoing problems and emerging threats.

I don’t suggest that any particular candidate is unsuitable for election, or that any is more worthy of that choice. Rather, I am stating that appeals based on “expertise” are insufficient for our evaluation. Like board members appointing a new executive, we need to know what is much more difficult to evaluate in a candidate: temperament, as in how he or she treats colleagues, subordinates, friends, and rivals; judgment, as in how he or she prioritizes issues and chooses objectives; and commitment, as in how reliably he or she will subordinate his or her own opportunities to what is best for the enterprise, or nation. We don’t need any more expertise. We need good character.