Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us and How to Know When Not to Trust Them

Regular Shelf Love visitors will probably be scratching their heads at the appearance of a book like this here on the blog. Neither Jenny nor I tend to read a lot of popular nonfiction of this type; our nonfiction tends instead to be memoirs, biographies, histories, and the like. Well, that used to not be the case for me. I went through a period a while back of reading lots of popular nonfiction—you know, all those books that get talked about on the radio and TV, written by gurus and researchers who quickly become media darlings. I read Blink, The Tipping Point, The World Is Flat, Freakonomics, and the like; and I got something out of all of them, even if I didn’t agree with every point each of these authors made.

However, I quickly got burned out on these books. It seemed like even if these authors made sound arguments, they still got boiled down into simple, easily digestible sound bites. And as I listened to the sound bites, and to the arguments that other “experts” built on those sound bites, I got cynical about the whole genre. So given my cynicism about so-called experts, when I spotted the review copies of David Freedman’s book at the American Library Association conference last month, the subtitle had instant appeal.

Freedman’s book looks at many different types of research and expertise, from studies in research journals, to popular financial advisors, to celebrity spokespeople, to your local doctor. He considers how and why their advice so often steers us in the wrong direction. He also considers why certain studies and certain gurus get so much attention when others, sometimes more reliable others, get ignored. It seems that people want dramatic results and easy-to-follow steps. Nuance and negative results are less interesting. And then there’s the whole problem of falsified data, which seems more common than most of us would like to think.

One of my favorite chapters, “The Idiocy of Crowds,” takes on the common notion that the best ideas arise from people working together. I do believe in teamwork, because I know I learn a great deal from working with others, but I also believe that the team approach is not always the best one. Freedman talks about how dominant personalities and groupthink can lead people who see a problem with the team’s solution to keep their mouths shut. Who wants to be a nay-sayer, right?

Besides not always leading to the right answer, teamwork is also sometimes more inefficient than individual work. It’s easy for someone to be nonproductive when working in a group—sometimes without even realizing it. But when asked to generate a list of ideas independently, that same person will know how much he or she is getting done. Interestingly, in a later chapter on technology, Freedman decries the lack of expert participation in collaborative online ventures, so there’s a tension in his argument. And that’s perhaps a good thing. Collaboration doesn’t have all the answers, but neither does working in isolation.

I also loved Freedman’s skewering of management gurus and their TLAs (“three-letter acronyms”). I know I could make a long list of TLAs I’ve encountered (and used!) in my job. I bet many of you could, too. This chapter, “Experts and Organizations,” points out how ridiculous it is to think that a management book available at any airport would contain the secrets that would enable every company out there to be a winner. Jerker Denrell of Stanford’s business school points out that this is not unlike a swim coach saying that every swimmer who follows her advice will win at swim meets.

My only real problem with the book is a problem that I’ve found in a lot of books of this type—a piling on of examples. After a while, they do tend to become a blur. Maybe if I weren’t already inclined to accept Freedman’s main idea I would need all those anecdotes and examples, but he didn’t need to work quite so hard to convince me. Still, the examples are easy enough to understand, and the book’s accessible, journalistic style kept it from ever feeling like work to read.

A lot of what Freedman had to say resonated with me, which, according to his logic, would mean that I should be suspicious of what he is saying because we are more likely to accept the results of research that supports something we already believe. Freedman does acknowledge the irony of presenting himself as an expert on expertise, and in the final appendix, he fesses up to the ways in which he might have massaged his findings to support his thesis. So maybe some of his examples wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. His central ideas, though, are probably sound enough, based as they are on common sense. His main point seems to be not to accept everything you read at face value. It’s not advice a cynic like me needs all that much, I suppose, but I’m glad Freedman said it.

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12 Responses to Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us and How to Know When Not to Trust Them

  1. Jenny says:

    I just saw this title the other day and wondered about it – I love books that tell me why other people are wrong. It’s the flip side to how much I love being right.

    Er, also, I support critical thinking. :p

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! There is something satisfying about hearing how all those people who claim to know so much don’t know as much as they claim.

  2. amymckie says:

    This book sounds really interesting. I like that he was honest enough to point out where he might have gone wrong!

  3. Stefanie says:

    Heh, well at leat he fesses up in the appendix to sometimes massaging things to support what he has to say, that’s more than everyone else does so I give him credit for that. I am glad he has a section on crowds. I am reading You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier and he too stresses that crowds are useful for some things but crowds do not have the answer to everything. We need individuals too. Maybe because I’m tired of the whole wisdom of the crowds thing that I am receptive to the argument or maybe it’s because I hate crowds :) Anyway, thanks for reviewing this book. I’ve seen it and thought it looked interesting and now I don’t have to read it!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been curious about You Are Not a Gadget because it sounds like it covers some ideas I’m interested in. Perhaps if you review it, that will give me enough information so I don’t have to read it :)

  4. Emily says:

    I share your frustration with the Malcolm Gladwell types, even as I’m drawn to their pithy analyses of modern phenomena. Their instincts to simplify issues for the sake of their arguments is annoying…and kind of insulting, when you think about it. I can handle a complex, nuanced argument, after all!

    • Teresa says:

      I can never quite decide if I dislike the gurus or if I dislike the way the media simplifies the gurus’ ideas. When I actually read Blink, I found that it said something slightly more interesting than what I had been led to believe by the media. But still, it seems like a lot of the time the arguments in books like this are based on random observations rather than systematic study. That’s okay as far as it goes, I guess, but when people start trying to run their businesses or organizations based on their ideas, I get queasy.

  5. trapunto says:

    “The Idiocy of Crowds” –I would read the book just for this chapter title.

    Or maybe skim it.

    • Teresa says:

      That is a great title. Equally amusing was Denrell’s observation when Freedman interviewed him that the book Good to Great would be more accurately titled From Mediocre to Okay. Ha!

  6. Frances says:

    Often find that I enjoy these type topics but wish they had been condensed to magazine or journal article length. That preponderance of examples you mention here all becoming an indistinct white noise after a while. The cranky woman in me tries to read through but just complains that they are unnaturally stretching the topic to book length. Also (while I am still being cranky) feel that these efforts sometimes come across as group effort as discussed here rather than single coherent voice. The changes in perspective, writing styles. Many hands in the pot.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’ve nailed it, Frances. The ideas in a lot of these books are interesting, but not worthy of a whole book, just of an article or two (and they did often start out as articles). If the author had to trim it down to magazine length, only the most interesting and salient examples would make it into print. And there’d be less tendency to wander off message.

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