Think Critically About the Wisdom of Experts

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Expert analysis informs almost all of the decisions we make as leaders and managers, as well as in our everyday lives.  For instance, we can’t see red blood cells, but we trust scientists who say we have them and doctors who order blood tests to count them.  We suspect that cognitive biases affect our choices, not because we have done the analysis ourselves, but because we believe social scientists who conduct experimental research.  Much of our knowledge is ultimately garnered from the testimony of teachers, mentors, colleagues, and authors who write for publications like this one.

But we also live in a world where, almost daily, some expert’s previous certainty is discredited by newanalysis.  Diets once thought to be foolproof are ridiculed and management practices, once decried, are suddenly praised.  So, how should we treat the next piece of advice we get from a scholar or a consultant?

Darmouth Professor Andrew King addresses this question in the Winter 2019 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.  As King observes, philosophersof science who study such issues, generally recommend that decision-makers simply trust what we hear from well-credentialed people who seem competent and sincere.  But King argues that business decision-makers can and should do better.  How?  By always thinking critically about what we hear or read.

In his experience, “fresh eyes” often find errors that have eluded expert minds.  Therefore, we owe it to ourselves and our organizations to handle each item of expertise the way we would a piece of fruit we’re about to buy — gauging how wholesome and ripe it is. 

King offers eight guidelines we can use to do just that:

  1. Dare to Doubt,
  2. Question Assumptions,
  3. Seek Alternative Explanations,
  4. Distinguish Between Stories and Predictions,
  5. Know the Limits of Inference,
  6. Demand a Robustness Analysis,
  7. Avoid Overapplication, and
  8. Be Skeptical of Hearsay

Let’s examine each guideline starting with…

Dare to Doubt

Experts make mistakes.  Consider two examples:

In the second most popular TED talk of all time, social psychologist Amy Cuddy tells us that holding certain physical postures boosts our power hormones and makes us more courageous;...

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