November 18, 2013

The Ignorance Of Experts

Once in a while you read something so wonderful that you have to tell people about it. Such a thing happened to me last week.

I was reading a book entitled The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman. Feynman is one of my heroes. I have written about him often on this blog. He was probably one of the most brilliant people of the 20th century (I say "probably" because I haven't met all the people of the 20th century.)

I have made a practice of trying to read everything that Feynman wrote (although much of it is indecipherable to my feeble mind.) The great value to me in reading Feynman is not in understanding his remarkable discoveries in physics, for which he won the Albert Einstein Award and the Nobel Prize, but in observing the clarity and dexterity of his thinking and, most of all, his congenital skepticism.

Feynman was an inveterate doubter. One of the things that made him such a brilliant and successful scientist, and such an interesting person, was that he never accepted anything because it was the opinion of an expert or an "authority." He insisted on proving things to his own satisfaction.

In my (trivial) advertising career, I tried to maintain a skeptical and doubting outlook. While it is obvious that advertising is a monumentally silly occupation, I tried to make it more stimulating (to me, at least) by questioning everything I read or heard about it -- by trying very hard not to accept the generally accepted wisdom unless I could find convincing evidence that it was true.

In the past few weeks on this page I have expressed that idea a couple of times. On October 28th I wrote...
Nobody seems inclined to challenge the wearisome assertions of modern-day wizards, no matter how many times they've been wrong.
On October 30th I wrote...
...the first thing that struck me was that in the ad business we didn’t really seem to know very much... We thought we knew things…we had all these rules and principles and philosophies and ideas about what made good advertising…but I couldn’t find any never stopped bothering me. And so I developed a very annoying habit – I stopped believing advertising experts.
The persona I created for this blog is one of a cranky old guy who is out to question everything about advertising that conventional wisdom, and conventional wizards, have to say.

There are times I have reservations about this posturing. I ask myself whether I am just doing it to advance my "brand" and be a pain in the ass, or if I really possess the doubt and skepticism I claim to have?

And then the wonderful thing happened. I was reading an essay in Feynman's book. The essay was in the form of a speech he gave to the National Science Teachers Association. The subject was "What Is Science?" He gave several different definitions of science from several different perspectives. Then he gave one that really got me smiling. He said...
"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
Amen, brother.

By The Way...
There is a terrific movie about Feynman's struggle with the "experts" of NASA called "The Challenger Disaster" that is airing this week on the Science Channel and the History Channel. Not to be missed.

And Don't Forget...
Feynman went to Far Rockaway High School.


Martin Headon said...

Chimes in nicely with the chapter of Daniel Kahnemann's "Thinking, fast and slow" I was reading yesterday - which showed how a simple statistical algorithm was almost always a better predictor of long-term trends than an "expert" analysis. So expert wine tasters, with all the data AND the wine to taste, were no better able to predict the future value of a Bordeaux than a simple calculation based on soil types and weather trends.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

Skepticism is underrated. It's considered negativity, which it isn't, and classified as nay-saying, which it also isn't. I find that my own skepticism has landed me the reputation of a negative old coot. Undeservedly. I find that I am incredibly amused by the posturing of the experts and egomaniacs so much, sometimes, that I say nothing only to watch the results – or lack thereof – and their belligerent defense of their so-called expertise.

Advertising is a science, until being so is inconvenient. Once what the experts say cannot be proved (or is proved false), nothing else can either.

Sheriff Shooter said...

I'm smiling too

Sheriff Shooter said...

and now, @Martin Headon, there's this