The Incompetence of Expertise

In the fourth chapter of his book ‘True Enough- Learning to Live in a Post Fact Society’, Farhad Manjoo explained how peripheral processing of finding the answer to a question takes over central processing. People tend to prefer “peripheral route”, a simple and shortcut method to make a choice when they are ignorant in certain field and prefer a “central route”, a complicated and long method to make a choice when they are comfortable with the complexity of the route. The central route is more accurate because it is based on facts and need expertise, a expertise that vary significantly within a discipline even within sub-discipline, hence less subject to adoption. That is why, when reality splits, peripheral route takes advantage over central route.

Way of presentation is more important than the content. We write the content in MS Word, evaluate the data in MS Excel and present the idea on MS Power point. All three platforms are specialized/expert for their intended use, but MS Power point has more power than any other two to influence non-expert audience. Power point slides are short, designed to fit the audience and that is why this source is more effective. As Farhad Manjoo says, amateurs who pretend as expert, exploit weak zone of the peripheral route and deceive people.

Few months back in October 2016, Danny Hakim, an investigative reporter in New York Times published a post in which he questioned the benefits of genetically engineered crops (GMOs) in terms of increased yield and reduced pesticide use in the US and Canada. He compared the US and Canada, leading countries in GMOs use with European countries which has been refusing the adoption of GMOs. He compared both sides by presenting several graphs derived from data on crop yield and pesticide use. This post sparked the debate on use of GMOs and widely circulated by anti-GMO folks. If you are not expert in genetic engineering and neutral on this topic, this post is biased enough to make you anti-GMO as it seemed so realistic. His content was not fake but way of presentation was biased.

There were several flaws in his graphs and next day, Andrew Kniss, a Weed Scientist at Wyoming State University published a blog post on his webpage in which he pointed out those flaws. First, the data, Hakim used from both sides were in different units, which is not a valid comparison. Second, the data he used for pesticide use comparisons were not interpreted per unit area basis. The farming practices in US and European countries are far different and there are several factors that need to be considered when making such wide comparisons.

Benefits of GMOs is a complex topic and has been remained on debate since the time of their release.  Now in this context, there are two experts on the same topic who are presenting the same issue in two different way. Anti-GMO folks found Hakim’s post accurate and circulated the post to others in their group. They are ignoring Andrew Kniss’s post that has proved Hakim’s post inaccurate with facts. Pro-GMO folks, whether had not considered the Hakim’s post or had a second thought, but then they found the Andrew Kniss’s post and firmed with their belief. Hakim’s post spread more rapidly and got more attention, since there were anti-GMO folks who were waiting for someone who can raise questions on benefits of GMOs.


One thought on “The Incompetence of Expertise

  1. I want to tag in on your comment of “way of presentation is more important than content”. This is such an important idea because regardless of if it’s mainstream media or if it’s turning in a school assignment, presentation matters. My AP classes in high school spent just as much time teaching us how to write neatly with a certain style as they did the actual content we’d be writing about. Also think about the fact many people take their news from blurbs on twitter as opposed to reading the entire article somewhere on a new site. What’s simpler will always be more convincing than something I have to work to process.


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