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Pseudo-Experts Protect their Phony-Baloney Jobs

Arab Coke and Pepsi

It is hard to overestimate the value of precise, current information and the understanding of local conditions when talking about almost anything, but especially concerned with persuasion and public affairs. Remember that when hearing from experts who purport to know a lot about really big and widely dispersed cultures or countries.  Even Coca-Cola tastes different in different places. There is no such thing as a global brand.

I was reminded of that during an unpleasant conversation I had with a woman who implied that she spoke for or at least understood Muslims.  She didn’t really specify, but she left the strong impression that she was talking about ALL the Muslims. Last I heard, there were about a billion and a third of them. I don’t doubt that she had important insights, but it is clearly not possible for anybody to be an expert on that many people, living as they do in such diverse circumstances.   Nor is it possible to craft any message or campaign that will appeal to all of them. It is just stupid to lump a billion people together. Yet stupid is rampant. 

I goggled that transparently stupid phrase, “what do a billion Muslims really think” and to my chagrin found lots of people who claimed they could tell me the answer.  There is a whole book with that in the title, hundreds of articles, scores of opinion polls and lots of activity by think tanks. I guess I should not have been surprised.  It has long been a profitable racket for experts to set themselves up as spokespeople for large unknowable masses. I have met those who “speak for” the workers, the business owners, the blacks, the whites, the poor, the rich, the famous, the unknown ... I even met people who claim to speak for the animals, trees, rocks and for the earth itself.   I have even met people I did not know who claimed to speak for people like me. You just have to call them on this. 

One of the most important roles for a non-expert who is assigned to do something with experts is to keep them in their places.  This is hard, since they do indeed know more than you do in their area of expertise.  They can make you look silly for questioning them and most experts think their own field of endeavors is the most important or at least the indispensible link in the chain of effectiveness.   

But they do not know everything.  Developing real expertise is necessarily a narrowing process.   It is attractive to be THE expert and that means digging deep into something nobody knows, or maybe nobody cares, much about.  These kinds of experts may not have much grasp of the bigger picture, re how their part fits into the bigger whole.  They are so accustomed to intensifying the parts of their expertise that they forget to ask what their expertise is part of. The tricky tasks of the expert master is  to develop enough specific knowledge to ask the right questions,  enough humility to let the experts operate autonomously when appropriate and enough confidence and courage to stand up to them when necessary. Actually, a true subject matter expert rarely is a big problem for an experienced leader. They are like craftsmen, who do their job according to specifications. If you keep in mind that to a man with a hammer, every job looks like a nail, and you are sure that hammering is what you need, the main challenge is choosing the right people for the job in the first place.    

The problem people are the uber-experts, who extrapolate from what they legitimately know to claim all sorts of Gnostic knowledge that they claim to know but cannot explain to you because you can just never know it.  They tend to slither into places they don’t belong and develop a type of exclusive pseudo-expertise power that cows the timid, impresses the credulous and generally creates a pain in the rear for everybody else.  Anybody who claims to be an expert on Muslims w/o narrowing the category to something more specific is such an expert.   This goes for anybody who claims to represent any large group or have mastered any broad and complicated subject.  Little good can come from associating with them, apart from some passing entertainment value.  But the costs can be high in lost opportunities and misallocated resources.

Socrates warned us about people like that almost 2500 years ago. It is not a new predicament and it will not go away because it is too profitable for those doing it.  They struggle hard to protect their phony-baloney jobs and they are usually smart enough to put up a good fight.  The key to nullifying their power  is just to identify it for what it is and expose it to the light. Of course, that is easier said than done and sometimes even harder to explain to others.


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