The problem with experts

11th January 2018

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Month (Yes, a second one)

We’re embarrassed to admit that, despite all of the hullabaloo over the past decade, we had never previously gotten around to reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable—a no-holds-barred vivisection of so-called experts. Taleb doesn’t shy away from naming names, including Nobel Prize winners and the head of the Fed, and describing exactly how their financial guidance is, in some ways, more harmful than that of a cab driver.  

This is one of those books that we love because it confirms our own previous experiences with regards experts, particularly academic experts. As Taleb puts it, “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.”  Once you’re indoctrinated with a certain methodology, as for example, the value of the Gaussian curve, it’s hard to see when that curve gives dangerously misleading information.

Diversity Training Increases Bias

Which brings us to diversity.  We’re keen proponents of diversity, but we can’t help observing that today’s campus diversity officer seems to be acquiring a role similar to that of the political commissar in the old Soviet Union, (we have had a lot of personal experience with political commissars). We are very aware of how efforts to promote diversity can backfire, promoting rather than reducing racial prejudice and gender biases. And indeed, a recent Harvard study has found exactly that—many diversity programs at both universities and businesses actually lead to increased bias and a reduction in diversity.

An excellent book that describes how broad-ranging and well-meaning, but ultimately harmful, programs can be instituted at great expense is Timothy Wilson’s wonderful Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By. Of course, many of these types of programs arise from pathologies of altruism.  To learn more about this area, take a look at our book, Pathological Altruism, and our Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences article Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism.” If you really want to help others, it’s important to understand how misdirected helping can hurt.

Getting Your Ham Radio License

Given the fact that black swans are inevitable, it is great for society worldwide to have a reservoir of amateurs who are comfortable working with the world of radios. When disasters happen—and they inevitably will—it’s a good thing to have people who can communicate at a distance.

As it happens, Barb’s younger daughter is currently studying for her Technician Ham Radio licence, and she stumbled across this excellent book by Michael Burnette, (AF7KB): The Fast Track to Your Technician Class Ham Radio License. If you’ve been thinking of taking the plunge into talking to people around the world on amateur radio, get this book to help you get started!

Barb’s Upcoming Talk: Having a Greater Impact

  • Rochester, Michigan Jan 24: Barb will be speaking on the vitally important topic of how a professor, and a university, can have greater impact in today’s world. Her talk “Escaping the Ivory Tower: How to Grow Your Public Impact” will be on Wednesday, January 24th from 3:00 pm  to 4:30 p.m., at Oakland University, 242 Elliott Hall in Rochester, Michigan. RSVP to Leanne DeVreugd at

Barb’s February talks include keynotes at:

  • All Hands Meeting, Microsoft Western Europe, Monaco, Feb 6
  • Amos Fetzer and Alice Fetzer Memorial Lecture, Nebraska Wesleyan, Omaha, Nebraska, Feb 9
  • Middle College National Consortium Annual Conference, Newport, California, Feb 13
  • Doha, Qatar, Texas A&M University at Qatar Feb 19-22

If you happen to be in any of those areas and can make a talk, Barb would love to meet you!

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

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