Experts Versus Elites

Consider a typical firm or other small organization, run via a typical management hierarchy. At the bottom are specialists, who do very particular tasks. At the top are generalists, who supposedly consider it all in the context of a bigger picture. In the middle are people who specialize to some degree, but who also are supposed to consider somewhat bigger pictures.

On any particular issue, people at the bottom can usually claim the most expertise; they know their job best. And when someone at the top has to make a difficult decision, they usually prefer to justify it via reference to recommendations from below. They are just following the advice of their experts, they say. But of course they lie; people at the top often overrule subordinates. And while leaders often like to pretend that they select people for promotion on the basis of doing lower jobs well, that is also often a lie.

Our larger society has a similar structure. We have elites who are far more influential than most of us about what happens in our society. As we saw early in the pandemic, the elites are always visibly chattering among themselves about the topics of the day, and when they form a new opinion, the experts usually quickly cave to agree with them, and try to pretend they agreed all along.

As a book I recently reviewed explains in great detail, elites are selected primarily for their prestige and status, which has many contributions, including money, looks, fame, charm, wit, positions of power, etc. Elites like to pretend they were selected for being experts at something, and they like to pretend their opinions are just reflecting what experts have said (“we believe the science!”). But they often lie; elite opinion often overrules expert opinion, especially on topics with strong moral colors. And elites are selected far more for prestige than expertise.

When an academic wins a Nobel prize, they have achieved a pinnacle of expertise. At which point they often start to wax philosophic, and writing op-eds. They seem to be making a bid to become an elite. Because we all respect and want to associate with elites far more than with experts. Elites far less often lust after becoming experts, because we are often willing to treat elites as if they are experts. For example, when a journalist writes a popular book on science, they are often willing to field science questions when they give a talk on their book. And the rest of us are far more interested in hearing them talk on the subject than the scientists they write about.

Consider talks versus panels at conferences. A talk tends to be done in expert mode, wherein the speaker sticks to topics on which they have acquired expert knowledge. But then on panels, the same people talk freely on most any topic that comes up, even topics where they have little expertise. You might think that audiences would be less interested in hearing such inexpert speculation, but in fact they seem to eat it up. My interpretation: on panels, people pose as elites, and talk in elite mode. Like they might do at a cocktail party. And audiences eagerly gather around panelists, just like they would gather around prestigious folks arguing at a cocktail party about topics on which they have little expertise.

Consider news articles versus columnists. The news articles are written by news experts, in full expert mode. They are clearly more accurate on average than are columns. But columns writers take on an elite mode, where they pontificate on all issues of the day, regardless of how much they know. And readers love that.

Consider boards of directors versus boards of advisors. Advisors are nominally experts, while directors are nominally elites. Directors are far more powerful, are lobbied far more strongly, and are paid a lot more too. Boards of advisors are usually not asked for advise, they are mainly there to add prestige to an organization. But prestige via their expertise, rather than their general eliteness.

Even inside academic worlds, we usually pretend to pick leaders like journal editors, funding program managers, department chairs, etc. based mainly on their expert credentials. But they also lie; raw prestige counts for a lot more than they like to admit.

Finally, consider that recently I went into clear expert mode to release a formal preprint on grabby aliens, which induced almost no (< 10) comments on this blog or Twitter, in contrast to far more comments when arguable-elites discuss it in panelist/elite mode: Scott Aaronson (205), Scott Alexander (108), and Hacker News (110). People are far more interested in talking with elites in elite mode on most topics, than in talking with the clear relevant experts in expert mode.

All of which suggests that my efforts to replace choice via elite association with prediction markets and paying for results face even larger uphill battles than I’ve anticipated.

Added noon: This also helps explain why artists are said to “contribute to important conversations” by making documentaries, etc. that express “emotional truths.” They present themselves as qualifying elites by virtue of their superior art abilities.

See also: More on Experts Vs. Elites

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