GETTING THINGS WRONG
Experts are people we rely on when we are ill, build a house, buy a car, board an airplane, or invest in equities or bonds. We also buy books written by an ‘expert’ because we trust that this person’s knowledge, experience and wisdom will shed a light on a subject that is of interest.
Crime fiction also has increasingly become the domain of authors who have developed expertise about police procedures, investigations, police department culture, as well as psychology, justice systems, politics, and language.
Expertise gives us comfort. An expert makes us feel that we are being ushered into a room and shown the Truth.
I have been reading David H. Freedman’s Wrong, Why Experts Keep Failing Us—and How to Know When Not to Trust Them (2010)
Freedman’s Wrong is something of a paradox. It is a book that outlines why we shouldn’t trust expertise and the experts behind it. In the book world, reviewers provide an insight in whether the legs holding up a book are made of straw or stronger stuff. Though it is unusual for a book reviewer to approach a book as a due diligence exercise with the purpose of identifying where the author has gone off the rails, making claims, as if an expert on such matters, only to be exposed as someone who really has no idea of the underlying concepts, ideas, or material.
In science, things are only slightly better. In medical journals, for example, an article must undergo peer review. Outside experts check the experiments, the research, and the claims and determine whether there are flaws. Whether it is heart disease, cancer, or AIDS, a lot is a stake—research funds, reputations, prizes, and promotions are to name a few.
Freedman writes about a doctor named John Ioannidis, who has gone through hundreds of studies only to discover that findings or conclusions are overblown. Over time they don’t hold up. That’s why every time you open the newspaper and find an article as to why you should take an aspirin and statin every day last a few years until someone writes that these drugs don’t really deliver the health benefits claimed by the earlier studies. Dr. Ioannidis puts the rate of wrongness at 2 out of every 3 studies. These are worse odds than Las Vegas.
Freedman’s thesis is that this wrongness is not limited to medical research but infects science generally whether it is physics, chemistry or psychology. It seems experts in all of these fields simply can’t be trusted with carrying out research that will hold up over time and what they do end up with is followed by conclusions that grab headlines and expectations but do little to promote the truth.
No one in Freedman’s book sets out to actively mislead and fool people. It’s just a byproduct of trying to understand the nature of the present and predict the future is a much more difficult business than most ‘experts’ are willing to concede. Before the subprime mortgage melted down the financial markets like a large hunk of Cheddar cheese left too close to the flames, our experts and gurus have their own opinions which often get in the way of their research and with mountains of data, errors are commonly made. The data doesn’t always point in one direction. How else could one find financial experts in 2007 saying the financial market were fine, strong, and able to withstand jolts?
Experts who are true believers, part of a school of economics, physics, or medicine often are seeking to confirm their opinions when examining evidence, highlighting the data that is confirmation and throwing out or diminishing the importance of negative evidence. That is human nature.
In writing a novel, an author normally isn’t conducting scientific experiments and tallying the data. The author is, however, drawing conclusions from the culture, language and history that are the context of the story. The novel, it is said, is made up. It is a fictional world. That view doesn’t wash for most readers who demand levels of truth from novels.
When you read one of Matt Beynon Rees’s Omar Yussef mysteries, you expect (and indeed are delivered) his expertise on the violence between Palestinians and Israelis. The same with Barbara Nadel’s Inspector Ikmen Mysteries, where she vividly opens the door on policing in Istanbul. Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series takes us into the political and medical world of “the national and only coroner of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.” With the Vincent Calvino novels, I try as well to bring the world into Bangkok politics, policing, and criminal justice.
Are we experts at what we do? Because you put your trust not just in our story telling but also in the fact we bring you a glimpse from the ground of complex social, political and economic systems. Fiction authors, though, aren’t scientist. But we are indeed researchers. Do we ever get it wrong? Of course that happens and readers will write and let us know where the truth slipped out of our hands.
Freedman’s excellent book points to a direction in awareness of our limitations. Experts, their studies, articles, data, and books no longer go unchallenged. What is most disturbing about Freedman’s book is to reverse the burden of proof. As most expert opinion is wrong at some level, experts in the future will be making fewer claims about scope and importance of their findings, and more time defending those diminished findings. The respect has been drained from expertise. People are suspicious and cynical about experts. Freedman draws upon the reduced stature of experts in society.
The reality is we need experts as life is far too complex without them. We need experts that we can trust. And that may be the real problem; we can only trust those experts that have been verified by others with similar expertise. The hope is the old boy network where one expert scratches the back of the other is on the way out. It only takes a Dr. John Ioannidis with courage, commitment, and a mission to keep a whole range of experts and their peers in line.
As for international crime fiction, the Dr. John Ioannidis type reviewer will emerge inside this community. Authors will be examined not just for their prose, story-telling opinion but also for their expert wisdom and insight into a criminal justice system ever much as chaotic as a weather system.