TEDSalon London 2010

Noreena Hertz: How to use experts -- and when not to

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We make important decisions every day -- and we often rely on experts to help us decide. But, says economist Noreena Hertz, relying too much on experts can be limiting and even dangerous. She calls for us to start democratizing expertise -- to listen not only to "surgeons and CEOs, but also to shop staff."

- Economist
Noreena Hertz looks at global culture -- financial and otherwise -- using an approach that combines traditional economic analysis with foreign policy trends, psychology, behavioural economics, anthropology, history and sociology. Full bio

It's Monday morning.
00:15
In Washington,
00:18
the president of the United States
00:20
is sitting in the Oval Office,
00:22
assessing whether or not
00:24
to strike Al Qaeda
00:26
in Yemen.
00:28
At Number 10 Downing Street,
00:30
David Cameron is trying to work out
00:32
whether to cut more public sector jobs
00:35
in order to stave off a double-dip recession.
00:38
In Madrid, Maria Gonzalez
00:41
is standing at the door,
00:44
listening to her baby crying and crying,
00:46
trying to work out whether she should let it cry
00:49
until it falls asleep
00:52
or pick it up and hold it.
00:54
And I am sitting by my father's bedside in hospital,
00:57
trying to work out
01:01
whether I should let him drink
01:03
the one-and-a-half-liter bottle of water
01:05
that his doctors just came in and said,
01:08
"You must make him drink today," --
01:11
my father's been nil by mouth for a week --
01:13
or whether, by giving him this bottle,
01:16
I might actually kill him.
01:20
We face momentous decisions
01:23
with important consequences
01:26
throughout our lives,
01:28
and we have strategies for dealing with these decisions.
01:30
We talk things over with our friends,
01:33
we scour the Internet,
01:36
we search through books.
01:39
But still,
01:42
even in this age
01:44
of Google and TripAdvisor
01:46
and Amazon Recommends,
01:48
it's still experts
01:51
that we rely upon most --
01:53
especially when the stakes are high
01:56
and the decision really matters.
01:58
Because in a world of data deluge
02:01
and extreme complexity,
02:03
we believe that experts
02:06
are more able to process information than we can --
02:08
that they are able to come to better conclusions
02:11
than we could come to on our own.
02:14
And in an age
02:17
that is sometimes nowadays frightening
02:19
or confusing,
02:22
we feel reassured
02:24
by the almost parental-like authority
02:26
of experts
02:29
who tell us so clearly what it is
02:31
we can and cannot do.
02:34
But I believe
02:38
that this is a big problem,
02:40
a problem with potentially dangerous consequences
02:42
for us as a society,
02:46
as a culture
02:49
and as individuals.
02:51
It's not that experts
02:53
have not massively contributed to the world --
02:55
of course they have.
02:57
The problem lies with us:
02:59
we've become addicted to experts.
03:02
We've become addicted to their certainty,
03:05
their assuredness,
03:08
their definitiveness,
03:10
and in the process,
03:12
we have ceded our responsibility,
03:14
substituting our intellect
03:16
and our intelligence
03:18
for their supposed words of wisdom.
03:21
We've surrendered our power,
03:24
trading off our discomfort
03:27
with uncertainty
03:29
for the illusion of certainty
03:31
that they provide.
03:33
This is no exaggeration.
03:36
In a recent experiment,
03:39
a group of adults
03:41
had their brains scanned in an MRI machine
03:43
as they were listening to experts speak.
03:46
The results were quite extraordinary.
03:50
As they listened to the experts' voices,
03:53
the independent decision-making parts of their brains
03:56
switched off.
04:01
It literally flat-lined.
04:03
And they listened to whatever the experts said
04:06
and took their advice, however right or wrong.
04:08
But experts do get things wrong.
04:12
Did you know that studies show
04:16
that doctors misdiagnose
04:19
four times out of 10?
04:22
Did you know
04:25
that if you file your tax returns yourself,
04:27
you're statistically more likely
04:30
to be filing them correctly
04:32
than if you get a tax adviser
04:34
to do it for you?
04:36
And then there's, of course, the example
04:38
that we're all too aware of:
04:40
financial experts
04:42
getting it so wrong
04:44
that we're living through the worst recession
04:46
since the 1930s.
04:48
For the sake of our health,
04:52
our wealth
04:54
and our collective security,
04:56
it's imperative that we keep
04:58
the independent decision-making parts of our brains
05:01
switched on.
05:05
And I'm saying this as an economist
05:07
who, over the past few years,
05:09
has focused my research
05:11
on what it is we think
05:13
and who it is we trust and why,
05:15
but also --
05:18
and I'm aware of the irony here --
05:20
as an expert myself,
05:22
as a professor,
05:25
as somebody who advises prime ministers,
05:27
heads of big companies,
05:30
international organizations,
05:32
but an expert who believes
05:34
that the role of experts needs to change,
05:36
that we need to become more open-minded,
05:39
more democratic
05:42
and be more open
05:44
to people rebelling against
05:46
our points of view.
05:48
So in order to help you understand
05:51
where I'm coming from,
05:54
let me bring you into my world,
05:56
the world of experts.
05:59
Now there are, of course, exceptions,
06:01
wonderful, civilization-enhancing exceptions.
06:05
But what my research has shown me
06:11
is that experts tend on the whole
06:14
to form very rigid camps,
06:17
that within these camps,
06:20
a dominant perspective emerges
06:22
that often silences opposition,
06:25
that experts move with the prevailing winds,
06:28
often hero-worshipping
06:31
their own gurus.
06:34
Alan Greenspan's proclamations
06:36
that the years of economic growth
06:38
would go on and on,
06:41
not challenged by his peers,
06:44
until after the crisis, of course.
06:47
You see,
06:51
we also learn
06:54
that experts are located,
06:56
are governed,
06:58
by the social and cultural norms
07:00
of their times --
07:03
whether it be the doctors
07:05
in Victorian England, say,
07:07
who sent women to asylums
07:09
for expressing sexual desire,
07:12
or the psychiatrists in the United States
07:15
who, up until 1973,
07:18
were still categorizing homosexuality
07:21
as a mental illness.
07:25
And what all this means
07:27
is that paradigms
07:29
take far too long to shift,
07:31
that complexity and nuance are ignored
07:34
and also that money talks --
07:38
because we've all seen the evidence
07:41
of pharmaceutical companies
07:44
funding studies of drugs
07:46
that conveniently leave out
07:49
their worst side effects,
07:51
or studies funded by food companies
07:54
of their new products,
07:57
massively exaggerating the health benefits
08:00
of the products they're about to bring by market.
08:03
The study showed that food companies exaggerated
08:06
typically seven times more
08:08
than an independent study.
08:11
And we've also got to be aware
08:15
that experts, of course,
08:17
also make mistakes.
08:19
They make mistakes every single day --
08:21
mistakes born out of carelessness.
08:24
A recent study in the Archives of Surgery
08:27
reported surgeons
08:30
removing healthy ovaries,
08:32
operating on the wrong side of the brain,
08:35
carrying out procedures on the wrong hand,
08:38
elbow, eye, foot,
08:41
and also mistakes born out of thinking errors.
08:44
A common thinking error
08:47
of radiologists, for example --
08:49
when they look at CT scans --
08:52
is that they're overly influenced
08:55
by whatever it is
08:57
that the referring physician has said
08:59
that he suspects
09:01
the patient's problem to be.
09:03
So if a radiologist
09:06
is looking at the scan
09:08
of a patient with suspected pneumonia, say,
09:10
what happens is that,
09:13
if they see evidence
09:15
of pneumonia on the scan,
09:17
they literally stop looking at it --
09:20
thereby missing the tumor
09:23
sitting three inches below
09:25
on the patient's lungs.
09:27
I've shared with you so far
09:31
some insights into the world of experts.
09:34
These are, of course,
09:37
not the only insights I could share,
09:39
but I hope they give you a clear sense at least
09:41
of why we need to stop kowtowing to them,
09:44
why we need to rebel
09:47
and why we need to switch
09:49
our independent decision-making capabilities on.
09:51
But how can we do this?
09:55
Well for the sake of time,
09:58
I want to focus on just three strategies.
10:01
First, we've got to be ready and willing
10:06
to take experts on
10:08
and dispense with this notion of them
10:11
as modern-day apostles.
10:14
This doesn't mean having to get a Ph.D.
10:16
in every single subject,
10:19
you'll be relieved to hear.
10:21
But it does mean persisting
10:23
in the face of their inevitable annoyance
10:26
when, for example,
10:29
we want them to explain things to us
10:31
in language that we can actually understand.
10:33
Why was it that, when I had an operation,
10:38
my doctor said to me,
10:41
"Beware, Ms. Hertz,
10:43
of hyperpyrexia,"
10:45
when he could have just as easily said,
10:47
"Watch out for a high fever."
10:49
You see, being ready to take experts on
10:53
is about also being willing
10:57
to dig behind their graphs,
10:59
their equations, their forecasts,
11:02
their prophecies,
11:04
and being armed with the questions to do that --
11:06
questions like:
11:09
What are the assumptions that underpin this?
11:11
What is the evidence upon which this is based?
11:14
What has your investigation focused on?
11:17
And what has it ignored?
11:21
It recently came out
11:24
that experts trialing drugs
11:26
before they come to market
11:29
typically trial drugs
11:31
first, primarily on male animals
11:34
and then, primarily on men.
11:38
It seems that they've somehow overlooked the fact
11:41
that over half the world's population are women.
11:44
And women have drawn the short medical straw
11:49
because it now turns out that many of these drugs
11:52
don't work nearly as well on women
11:55
as they do on men --
11:58
and the drugs that do work well work so well
12:00
that they're actively harmful for women to take.
12:03
Being a rebel is about recognizing
12:06
that experts' assumptions
12:09
and their methodologies
12:12
can easily be flawed.
12:14
Second,
12:17
we need to create the space
12:19
for what I call "managed dissent."
12:22
If we are to shift paradigms,
12:25
if we are to make breakthroughs,
12:27
if we are to destroy myths,
12:29
we need to create an environment
12:32
in which expert ideas are battling it out,
12:34
in which we're bringing in
12:37
new, diverse, discordant, heretical views
12:39
into the discussion,
12:42
fearlessly,
12:44
in the knowledge that progress comes about,
12:46
not only from the creation of ideas,
12:49
but also from their destruction --
12:53
and also from the knowledge
12:56
that, by surrounding ourselves
12:59
by divergent, discordant,
13:01
heretical views.
13:04
All the research now shows us
13:06
that this actually makes us smarter.
13:08
Encouraging dissent is a rebellious notion
13:13
because it goes against our very instincts,
13:16
which are to surround ourselves
13:19
with opinions and advice
13:22
that we already believe
13:24
or want to be true.
13:27
And that's why I talk about the need
13:29
to actively manage dissent.
13:31
Google CEO Eric Schmidt
13:35
is a practical practitioner
13:37
of this philosophy.
13:40
In meetings, he looks out for the person in the room --
13:42
arms crossed, looking a bit bemused --
13:45
and draws them into the discussion,
13:48
trying to see if they indeed are
13:51
the person with a different opinion,
13:54
so that they have dissent within the room.
13:57
Managing dissent
14:00
is about recognizing the value
14:02
of disagreement, discord
14:05
and difference.
14:08
But we need to go even further.
14:10
We need to fundamentally redefine
14:13
who it is that experts are.
14:16
The conventional notion
14:20
is that experts are people
14:22
with advanced degrees,
14:25
fancy titles, diplomas,
14:27
best-selling books --
14:30
high-status individuals.
14:32
But just imagine
14:34
if we were to junk
14:36
this notion of expertise
14:38
as some sort of elite cadre
14:42
and instead embrace the notion
14:46
of democratized expertise --
14:49
whereby expertise was not just the preserve
14:52
of surgeons and CEO's,
14:55
but also shop-girls -- yeah.
14:57
Best Buy,
15:01
the consumer electronics company,
15:03
gets all its employees --
15:05
the cleaners, the shop assistants,
15:08
the people in the back office,
15:10
not just its forecasting team --
15:13
to place bets, yes bets,
15:15
on things like whether or not
15:18
a product is going to sell well before Christmas,
15:20
on whether customers' new ideas
15:23
are going to be or should be taken on by the company,
15:26
on whether a project
15:30
will come in on time.
15:32
By leveraging
15:34
and by embracing
15:36
the expertise within the company,
15:38
Best Buy was able to discover, for example,
15:40
that the store that it was going to open in China --
15:43
its big, grand store --
15:47
was not going to open on time.
15:49
Because when it asked its staff,
15:52
all its staff, to place their bets
15:54
on whether they thought the store would open on time or not,
15:57
a group from the finance department
16:01
placed all their chips
16:04
on that not happening.
16:06
It turned out that they were aware,
16:09
as no one else within the company was,
16:11
of a technological blip
16:14
that neither the forecasting experts,
16:16
nor the experts on the ground in China,
16:18
were even aware of.
16:21
The strategies
16:25
that I have discussed this evening --
16:27
embracing dissent,
16:30
taking experts on,
16:32
democratizing expertise,
16:34
rebellious strategies --
16:36
are strategies that I think
16:39
would serve us all well to embrace
16:41
as we try to deal with the challenges
16:43
of these very confusing, complex,
16:46
difficult times.
16:49
For if we keep
16:51
our independent decision-making part
16:53
of our brains switched on,
16:55
if we challenge experts, if we're skeptical,
16:58
if we devolve authority,
17:01
if we are rebellious,
17:03
but also
17:05
if we become much more comfortable
17:07
with nuance,
17:09
uncertainty and doubt,
17:11
and if we allow our experts
17:14
to express themselves
17:17
using those terms too,
17:19
we will set ourselves up
17:21
much better
17:23
for the challenges of the 21st century.
17:25
For now, more than ever,
17:29
is not the time
17:32
to be blindly following,
17:34
blindly accepting,
17:36
blindly trusting.
17:38
Now is the time to face the world
17:41
with eyes wide open --
17:44
yes, using experts
17:47
to help us figure things out, for sure --
17:49
I don't want to completely do myself out of a job here --
17:52
but being aware
17:56
of their limitations
17:58
and, of course, also our own.
18:01
Thank you.
18:05
(Applause)
18:07

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About the Speaker:

Noreena Hertz - Economist
Noreena Hertz looks at global culture -- financial and otherwise -- using an approach that combines traditional economic analysis with foreign policy trends, psychology, behavioural economics, anthropology, history and sociology.

Why you should listen

For more than two decades, Noreena Hertz’s economic predictions have been accurate and ahead of the curve. In her recent book The Silent Takeover, Hertz predicted that unregulated markets and massive financial institutions would have serious global consequences while her 2005 book IOU: The Debt Threat predicted the 2008 financial crisis.

An influential economist on the international stage, Hertz also played an influential role in the development of (RED), an innovative commercial model to raise money for people with AIDS in Africa, having inspired Bono (co-founder of the project) with her writings.

Her work is considered to provide a much needed blueprint for rethinking economics and corporate strategy. She is the Duisenberg Professor of Globalization, Sustainability and Finance based at Duisenberg School of Finance, RSM, Erasmus University and University of Cambridge. She is also a Fellow of University College London.

More profile about the speaker
Noreena Hertz | Speaker | TED.com