It's Monday morning. In Washington, the president of the United States is sitting in the Oval Office, assessing whether or not to strike Al Qaeda in Yemen. At Number 10 Downing Street, David Cameron is trying to work out whether to cut more public sector jobs in order to stave off a double-dip recession. In Madrid, Maria Gonzalez is standing at the door, listening to her baby crying and crying, trying to work out whether she should let it cry until it falls asleep or pick it up and hold it. And I am sitting by my father's bedside in hospital, trying to work out whether I should let him drink the one-and-a-half-liter bottle of water that his doctors just came in and said, "You must make him drink today," — my father's been nil by mouth for a week — or whether, by giving him this bottle, I might actually kill him.
We face momentous decisions with important consequences throughout our lives, and we have strategies for dealing with these decisions. We talk things over with our friends, we scour the Internet, we search through books. But still, even in this age of Google and TripAdvisor and Amazon Recommends, it's still experts that we rely upon most — especially when the stakes are high and the decision really matters. Because in a world of data deluge and extreme complexity, we believe that experts are more able to process information than we can — that they are able to come to better conclusions than we could come to on our own. And in an age that is sometimes nowadays frightening or confusing, we feel reassured by the almost parental-like authority of experts who tell us so clearly what it is we can and cannot do.
But I believe that this is a big problem, a problem with potentially dangerous consequences for us as a society, as a culture and as individuals. It's not that experts have not massively contributed to the world — of course they have. The problem lies with us: we've become addicted to experts. We've become addicted to their certainty, their assuredness, their definitiveness, and in the process, we have ceded our responsibility, substituting our intellect and our intelligence for their supposed words of wisdom. We've surrendered our power, trading off our discomfort with uncertainty for the illusion of certainty that they provide. This is no exaggeration. In a recent experiment, a group of adults had their brains scanned in an MRI machine as they were listening to experts speak. The results were quite extraordinary. As they listened to the experts' voices, the independent decision-making parts of their brains switched off. It literally flat-lined. And they listened to whatever the experts said and took their advice, however right or wrong.
But experts do get things wrong. Did you know that studies show that doctors misdiagnose four times out of 10? Did you know that if you file your tax returns yourself, you're statistically more likely to be filing them correctly than if you get a tax adviser to do it for you? And then there's, of course, the example that we're all too aware of: financial experts getting it so wrong that we're living through the worst recession since the 1930s. For the sake of our health, our wealth and our collective security, it's imperative that we keep the independent decision-making parts of our brains switched on. And I'm saying this as an economist who, over the past few years, has focused my research on what it is we think and who it is we trust and why, but also — and I'm aware of the irony here — as an expert myself, as a professor, as somebody who advises prime ministers, heads of big companies, international organizations, but an expert who believes that the role of experts needs to change, that we need to become more open-minded, more democratic and be more open to people rebelling against our points of view. So in order to help you understand where I'm coming from, let me bring you into my world, the world of experts.
Now there are, of course, exceptions, wonderful, civilization-enhancing exceptions. But what my research has shown me is that experts tend on the whole to form very rigid camps, that within these camps, a dominant perspective emerges that often silences opposition, that experts move with the prevailing winds, often hero-worshipping their own gurus. Alan Greenspan's proclamations that the years of economic growth would go on and on, not challenged by his peers, until after the crisis, of course. You see, we also learn that experts are located, are governed, by the social and cultural norms of their times — whether it be the doctors in Victorian England, say, who sent women to asylums for expressing sexual desire, or the psychiatrists in the United States who, up until 1973, were still categorizing homosexuality as a mental illness.
And what all this means is that paradigms take far too long to shift, that complexity and nuance are ignored and also that money talks — because we've all seen the evidence of pharmaceutical companies funding studies of drugs that conveniently leave out their worst side effects, or studies funded by food companies of their new products, massively exaggerating the health benefits of the products they're about to bring by market. The study showed that food companies exaggerated typically seven times more than an independent study.
And we've also got to be aware that experts, of course, also make mistakes. They make mistakes every single day — mistakes born out of carelessness. A recent study in the Archives of Surgery reported surgeons removing healthy ovaries, operating on the wrong side of the brain, carrying out procedures on the wrong hand, elbow, eye, foot, and also mistakes born out of thinking errors. A common thinking error of radiologists, for example — when they look at CT scans — is that they're overly influenced by whatever it is that the referring physician has said that he suspects the patient's problem to be. So if a radiologist is looking at the scan of a patient with suspected pneumonia, say, what happens is that, if they see evidence of pneumonia on the scan, they literally stop looking at it — thereby missing the tumor sitting three inches below on the patient's lungs.
I've shared with you so far some insights into the world of experts. These are, of course, not the only insights I could share, but I hope they give you a clear sense at least of why we need to stop kowtowing to them, why we need to rebel and why we need to switch our independent decision-making capabilities on. But how can we do this? Well for the sake of time, I want to focus on just three strategies. First, we've got to be ready and willing to take experts on and dispense with this notion of them as modern-day apostles. This doesn't mean having to get a Ph.D. in every single subject, you'll be relieved to hear. But it does mean persisting in the face of their inevitable annoyance when, for example, we want them to explain things to us in language that we can actually understand. Why was it that, when I had an operation, my doctor said to me, "Beware, Ms. Hertz, of hyperpyrexia," when he could have just as easily said, "Watch out for a high fever." You see, being ready to take experts on is about also being willing to dig behind their graphs, their equations, their forecasts, their prophecies, and being armed with the questions to do that — questions like: What are the assumptions that underpin this? What is the evidence upon which this is based? What has your investigation focused on? And what has it ignored?
It recently came out that experts trialing drugs before they come to market typically trial drugs first, primarily on male animals and then, primarily on men. It seems that they've somehow overlooked the fact that over half the world's population are women. And women have drawn the short medical straw because it now turns out that many of these drugs don't work nearly as well on women as they do on men — and the drugs that do work well work so well that they're actively harmful for women to take. Being a rebel is about recognizing that experts' assumptions and their methodologies can easily be flawed.
Second, we need to create the space for what I call "managed dissent." If we are to shift paradigms, if we are to make breakthroughs, if we are to destroy myths, we need to create an environment in which expert ideas are battling it out, in which we're bringing in new, diverse, discordant, heretical views into the discussion, fearlessly, in the knowledge that progress comes about, not only from the creation of ideas, but also from their destruction — and also from the knowledge that, by surrounding ourselves by divergent, discordant, heretical views. All the research now shows us that this actually makes us smarter. Encouraging dissent is a rebellious notion because it goes against our very instincts, which are to surround ourselves with opinions and advice that we already believe or want to be true. And that's why I talk about the need to actively manage dissent.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt is a practical practitioner of this philosophy. In meetings, he looks out for the person in the room — arms crossed, looking a bit bemused — and draws them into the discussion, trying to see if they indeed are the person with a different opinion, so that they have dissent within the room. Managing dissent is about recognizing the value of disagreement, discord and difference. But we need to go even further. We need to fundamentally redefine who it is that experts are. The conventional notion is that experts are people with advanced degrees, fancy titles, diplomas, best-selling books — high-status individuals. But just imagine if we were to junk this notion of expertise as some sort of elite cadre and instead embrace the notion of democratized expertise — whereby expertise was not just the preserve of surgeons and CEO's, but also shop-girls — yeah.
Best Buy, the consumer electronics company, gets all its employees — the cleaners, the shop assistants, the people in the back office, not just its forecasting team — to place bets, yes bets, on things like whether or not a product is going to sell well before Christmas, on whether customers' new ideas are going to be or should be taken on by the company, on whether a project will come in on time. By leveraging and by embracing the expertise within the company, Best Buy was able to discover, for example, that the store that it was going to open in China — its big, grand store — was not going to open on time. Because when it asked its staff, all its staff, to place their bets on whether they thought the store would open on time or not, a group from the finance department placed all their chips on that not happening. It turned out that they were aware, as no one else within the company was, of a technological blip that neither the forecasting experts, nor the experts on the ground in China, were even aware of.
The strategies that I have discussed this evening — embracing dissent, taking experts on, democratizing expertise, rebellious strategies — are strategies that I think would serve us all well to embrace as we try to deal with the challenges of these very confusing, complex, difficult times. For if we keep our independent decision-making part of our brains switched on, if we challenge experts, if we're skeptical, if we devolve authority, if we are rebellious, but also if we become much more comfortable with nuance, uncertainty and doubt, and if we allow our experts to express themselves using those terms too, we will set ourselves up much better for the challenges of the 21st century. For now, more than ever, is not the time to be blindly following, blindly accepting, blindly trusting. Now is the time to face the world with eyes wide open — yes, using experts to help us figure things out, for sure — I don't want to completely do myself out of a job here — but being aware of their limitations and, of course, also our own.