November 17, 2013

Why we shouldn't listen to experts on global warming

The local radio station had this morning a show where they discussed global warming and they always quoted these so-called "experts" to confirm their views that global warming is a real threat. The question is if we should really trust these experts and if they are really experts on global warming? 

According to the book Influence by Robert Cialdini, which is a classic book on the topic of human behavior, we humans follow experts. The book calls this "the influence of authority." We are trained from birth that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong. Information from a recognized authority can provide us with a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation.

But we shouldn't always listen to experts and it may sometimes be dangerous to do so. For example: 
  • There are histories where a nurse, who assisted in an operation, has not spoken up to a doctor even though the nurse knew the doctor was doing something wrong.
  • It has been shown that if we stand at a zebra crossing and someone in a suit crosses the street, we follow him/her across the street. If someone who is not dressed in a suit crosses the street, we won't follow the person.
  • The hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management recruited experts in the form of Nobel Prize Winners, but the fund blew up after a few years because it turned out the experts were no true experts.

So to save us from this psychological fallacy, we have to say no to the influence of authority. We have to ask ourselves if an authority is truly an expert? But how do we do that? Someone who has studied this concept is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He has written the book The Black Swan, and in the book, he tries to answer the question on how to assess if an expert is an expert.

According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the problem with experts is that they do not know what they do not know. There are professions where there are true experts, and others where there is no evidence of skills. Professions that deal with the future and base their studies on the non-repeatable past have an expert problem. According to the book The Black Swan, you should listen to experts with professions like: astronomers, test pilots, chess masters, physicists, accountants, and photo interpreters. But you shouldn't listen to experts with professions like: stockbrokers, court judges, personnel selectors, intelligence analysts, and financial forecasters. 

What you have to do is to first ask yourself if the expert you are listening to tries to predict the future by studying a non-repeatable past. Can you really predict the future of the stock market by studying the past behavior of the stock market? Is the stock market repeatable or non-repeatable? But as we saw with the nurse who listened to the doctor even though the nurse knew the doctor was wrong, you have to question the error rate of an expert's procedure - or rather the expert's confidence in the procedure.

If we return to the radio show and the experts on global warming. Should we listened to them? According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we shouldn't listen to them because climate experts, like banking risk managers, have failed in the past in foreseeing long term damages. But not listening to climate experts is not the same as being a climate-change denier, or as Nassim Nicholas Taleb said:
"My position on the climate is to avoid releasing pollutants in the atmosphere, on the basis of ignorance, regardless of current expert opinion. This is an extension of my general idea that one does not need rationalization with the use of complicated models to the edict: "do not disturb a complex system" since we do not know the consequences."