Aug 25, 2021Liked by Richard Hanania

Great piece, but conflicted in certain ways. You make sweeping claims that “’expertise’ as we understand it is largely fake” and that “the entire concept of specialization” is “the main problem with academia”. But then you point to fields like civil engineering, physics, and aerospace engineering as examples of genuine specialized expertise.

Moreover, the “real” fields have formal structures similar to those of the “fake” fields. They have their own university departments, degrees, journals, and so on. And although some STEM research requires expensive infrastructure, other research doesn’t. Most mathematicians don’t need electron scanning microscopes or the Large Hadron Collider, so their work could be done outside formal academia. Yet formal math academia seems to work okay.

A better take is not that expertise is generally fake, but rather that expertise becomes increasingly fake as its domain shifts from the analysis of inanimate things to the analysis of human behavior.

What your “fake” fields have in common that they are concerned with predicting and managing human behavior, whereas the “real” fields are concerned with predicting and managing the behavior of inanimate physical objects: rockets, bridges, electrons, etc. Or with abstract mathematics.

Why this dividing line? Probably because human beings, and especially human brains, are extraordinarily complicated. Compared with other things, the human brain remains poorly understood. As a result, fields that rely upon an understanding of it make less progress.

This dividing line is evident in domains that straddle the human and the inanimate. In medicine, it seems to me that orthopedic surgery is more “real’ than psychiatry, not because psychiatrists are dumb but because the brain is more complicated than the anterior cruciate ligament.

Likewise with COVID. Expertise in vaccine development, which relies upon serious knowledge of biology and chemistry, is clearly real. It’s unlikely that Philippe Lemoine could step into the shoes of a senior scientist at BioNTec or Moderna and match their performance in a few months. But epidemiological modeling, which relies upon assumptions about a vast array of human behaviors, has proven to be mostly fake. Predicting human behavior is harder than predicting the efficacy of a vaccine.

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Great piece, thank you. A key factor at play here, I think, is what NN Taleb calls "skin in the game" - complete for a Taliban and zero for any decision-making American.

We created an entire class whose intellectual pursuits are fully disconnected from their practical results, both in academia and in public sector. If we reinstate accountability, intelligence will quickly follow. But of course that won't happen politically until we reach another existential-threat situation.

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This is a superb piece.

I would though draw a distinction between "fake" expertise and "malicious" expertise. The common "malicious" pattern is "advocates posing as analysts". In many domains - foreign policy for an example - almost 100% of "analysts" are in fact advocates.

While this dynamic leads to a pattern of those subject matter experts not making better recommendations than amateurs, it's not necessarily because the experts lack capability or useful superior knowledge.

For instance, DF @ the Atlantic is a truly brilliant guy. Very, very smart. But you would want to be careful following his foreign policy advice, because he will always pose as an analyst when he is in fact generally operating as an advocate. So in that sense I would not call his expertise "fake" - despite the quality of his guidance. He could provide better analysis than the vast majority of laymen, he just prefers not to.

The "advocate posing as analyst" dynamic has at this point poisoned a large share of US intellectual output. I think the problem of "malicious" expertise has somewhat different solutions to "fake" expertise.

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I honestly can't think of anyone in academic political science who thought the US approach to Afghanistan was working (or could work). And I can think of a lot of people who were extremely critical of it.

It's true that a lot of policy types have some level of formal education in political science/IR, but you surely know that there's essentially zero role for academic political science in their decision making (which is itself an indictment of political science though a very different one than what you're giving).

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> As a reader wrote to the Marginal Revolution blog, ethicists have some terrible takes because to get published, they need to be original.

I agree that novelty for novelty's sake contributes to many problems and failures, but I think we should keep in mind that this affects industry at least as much as academia. Every new engineer, designer, etc. at a company wants to make their mark. Regression to the mean is hard to avoid, so over time, market-leading products and services get worse as they accumulate more subpar "contributions".

> Here’s suicides in the US from 1981 to 2016.

This is an almost meaningless plot in most contexts. The per capita plot, while still not great, is a much better representation of reality.

> Neither of these perspectives contributes all that much. You’ve made the conversation more diverse, but dumber.

The "intellectual" in "intellectual diversity" is doing a lot of the work. Obviously there are viewpoints that don't contribute anything and aren't worth including, but a monoculture has its own downsides. The real needle to thread here is maintaining a vibrant and productive discourse while fending off the postmodern idea that all viewpoints are equally valid. (Both political sides have now learned to employ postmodernism selectively when it benefits them. I hope someday history accurately portrays postmodernism as one of the greatest intellectual missteps of human civilization.)

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I think you’re hitting a lot of soft targets to bolster your argument. Wouldn’t a particle physicist would be more of an expert on particle physics than the generally educated person? Wouldn’t an experienced thoracic surgeon have more expertise in the thorax than a general surgeon? Wouldn’t Magnus have greater expertise than a highly ranked player. I think there’s some division between hard and soft domains here - maybe hard and soft isn’t the right phraseology, but you get my drift. Meanwhile, I’ll let Lebron call the play next time time the court - not that average player off the bench.

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Your graph on murders is per capita but your graph on suicides is not (and, I suggest, it should be).

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Enjoy your posts. I think this topic however deserves a tighter argument and post than what you've given it here.

I also think you overlook experience and realistic/local knowledge in your IQ + CBA is enough point (putting aside motivation discrepancy). The US could bring to bear more intelligent people capable of conducting CBA than the Taliban. The difference however is that the Taliban's CBA model (using this as a shorthand for applied epistemology) is more realistic because it is based on local knowledge and experience. The US' efforts on the other hand were designed by highly credentialed people using abstracted and stylized knowledge that didn't fit on-the-ground reality well.

In other words, even using your own model, the Taliban won and the US lost in large parts because of the discrepancy in their types of expertise about Afghanistan. Instead of being an indictment of expertise, it's an indictment of a certain kind of expertise -- that which is produced by social science. It is more evidence for what should be nearly self-evident: Knowledge of human behavior, communities, cultures and societies isn't amenable to the abstraction through the scientific method.

Makes me want to re-read James C Scott.

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Space race analogy is bad analogy. It suggests each side is pursuing an equally difficult goal when this is almost certainly not the case. For all we know, trying to build a democratic nation in Afghanistan (our goal) is 100 times harder than the Taliban's goal of controlling power. It doesn't matter how much expertise he has, I will beat Garry Kasparov every time if he plays without a queen.

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What's unique for our time is the extreme liberal distaste for anything that potentially hints towards the 'superiority' of the oppressor categories (Whites, males, straights, etc.) In this world, innate intelligence cannot be real, behavior cannot have any consistent relationship with one's chromosomes or genetic inheritance.

It's a huge blind spot that's causing a monumental build up of data, any and all data, which suggests the null hypothesis of the blank slate, or standard social science model as it's called, is false. It gets so bad that people accuse AI of racism when it can identify a person's race from samples of x rays.

Modern day CRT amounts to a kind of last ditch effort to explain why equal treatment doesn't generate equal outcomes without rejecting the null hypothesis. Since the obvious testable causes of inequality consistent with the null have already been tested repeatedly. (such as school funding) you're left with unfalsifiable ones that implicate anyone and everyone.

Conservatives themselves only improve the situation if and when they're willing to reject the null hypothesis and also willing and able to withstand the physical violence that will be visited upon them when they do. Many of them are often so cowardly and compromised at this point that they might not even manage that.

If there was any group of people I'd trust to solve this problem it wouldn't be conservatives but Islamists. Conservatives didn't survive the 60's purges. It's not enough to suggest the null hypothesis is wrong, you need people who, whatever their other faults, will straight up tell you that (for example) biological sex is real and men and women are different. You will also need people that are more terrifying to offend than the campus orgs that drove non-leftists from the universities to begin with.


But even without the null hypothesis polluting social science you still have the issue that in a market place of ideas, ideas which are 'powerful' (however wrong or ineffective) will always win out over ideas which are simple. (And don't justify throwing tons of money at some problem as is the case with nation building and education)

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"There’s a saying in academia that “instead of measuring what we value, we value what we can measure.”"

...And this leads to a lot of numbers that don't match up to reality. "Give me hard data!" sounds like a hard-headed thing to say, until you realize that the data being requested doesn't reflect any sort of reality. Then it becomes decidedly soft-headed. If you've ever been employed at a job with lots of perfunctory metrics, you know about this.

Overall, this is the best attack on technocracy I've read. It backs the "trust the experts" types into a corner. I don't know how much difference that will really make (they can always just ignore it...) but anyone who engages honestly with this will be forced to take skepticism of "expertise" more seriously.

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Is the "total suicides" graph accounting for population growth? It doesn't look like it.

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I’m not sure I’d consider the Afghanistan mission to have “failed”. The primary goal was to prevent Islamic terrorist attacks in the US. The problem was that there wasn’t a way to prevent terrorist control of Afghanistan without the US military presence. So we went in, accomplished the goal, and didn’t have a way to leave (not necessarily a bad trade-off going by 2002 priorities.) We took a crack at the low-probability strategy of building a functioning government, since we had to be there anyway (and direct US colonial rule wouldn’t be a good look.)

There’s still a reasonable cost-benefit analysis that concludes “continued US presence is better than a 10% higher chance of major terrorist attack” but that’s not a winning message, so everyone had to pretend like we could “win” in some way, or just hope the US public focuses on other stuff. It worked for 20 years, and an argument could be made that we made it through the highest terrorism danger period and China’s now a more important military focus than it was in 2001.

Yes, the withdrawal was done terribly, but there was another set of tough choices there, and I think that falls more to “bureaucratic squabbling and lack of accountability results in incompetence” than a PhD in military withdrawals getting his predictions wrong.

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What's with the cheap shot at Berenson? He hasn't been 100% accurate, but he's been far closer than anyone at The Atlantic...

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It's not true that expert politcal judgement showed that experts did were no better than laymen. The laymen - undergrads at Berkely I think - did substantially worse than random, and on average the experts did no better than random. The cavet to this is that there were a group of experts - the foxes - who did much better than random. Additionally, time-series econometrics did exceptionally well, and that of course is an an area of expertise. I think the modern literature of forecasting also casts doubt on the claim that experts are useless. There are groups of people who can forecast really very well up to about 3 year time spans, and they do this in large part by reading large groups of experts as well of using base rate forecasting, and of course the base rate must be constructed.

I'm also not convinced we should be surprised that politcal scientists are bad a forecasting. Their role isn't to come up with the best predictive model of the social world, it's to come up with the most accurate causal model of one small part of the social world. This is a very different task. Potentially the analogy would be disregarding physics because solid state physicists can't predict when a car engine will break. A further point is that the work on expert politcal judgement was mostly done in the 80s, well before the causal inference revolution that's occurred in the social sciences - instrumental variables weren't even a thing!

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Related observation:

Some comments note that the Afghan government, contractors and others had a strong incentive to "play act" success (i.e. lie). Certainly true. But all major endeavors face potential fraud by participants, often with catastrophic consequences. One of the responsibilities of a civil engineer is to supervise a project to detect materials that don't meet specs, construction techniques that deviate from plans, and so forth. A well specified social policy needs to be monitored just as closely. A successful system will have the whistle blowing built in and adequately funded.

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