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Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong!

Expertise means more knowledge, and more knowledge produces more detail and complication

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Let me take you back to the year 1555, when Nostradamus wrote his first set of Quatrains, four line predictions, which are still pretty popular today. From prognostications about French revolution to those on the birth of Hitler, right through onto JFK assassination, death of Lady Diana to September 11 attack, Nostradamus' predictions are believed to be true. So much is our fascination to predict the future or get an expert advice by a subject expert that we even went on discovering Paul the Octopus, which was purportedly used to predict the results of world cup football matches.

Time and time again we are turning to the experts to take their opinion to clear the ambiguity and uncertainty so that we can make a sound and objective decisions. Be it product launch, election polls, career choices. But then, interestingly, who hasn't heard someone saying, ''experts tell me one thing, but what happens is the exact opposite; what the heck am I supposed to believe?'' For example our election poll predictions based on exit polls or opinion polls specially in 2004 and 2009, 2014, 2015, 2016, the mighty and famed psephologists have been unable to get the results right. Similarly, marketers predict their marketing plan outcomes with lots of optimism. CAUTION! Phillip Tetlock, University of Pennsylvania researched and found that of 82,361 forecasts from 284 experts (political scientists, economists and journalists) in over 20 years were more likely to be wrong than right. He also found that media supported experts are less likely to be right as compared to an average opinion leader.

Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher recalled a fragment of an ancient Greek poem. "The fox knows many things", "but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Tetlock dubbed his experts "foxes" and "hedgehogs." The singular lesson is that: the long-term prediction made by the hedgehog should be treated as WRONG. The experts on television panels, magazines, books, newspapers, and blogs who play to the galleries, raise TRPs or raise the noise level of TV studios just have One Big Idea. Yes, the sort of expert typically found in the media is precisely the sort of expert who is most likely to be wrong. Therefore as Philip Tetlock's explains through his experiment: the bigger the media profile of an expert, the less accurate his predictions are.

Some examples of expert opinions in the history, which have gone wrong:

1.    "Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop" - Time Magazine, 1966
2.    "The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty - a fad." - President of the Michigan Savings Bank
3.    "X-rays will prove to be a hoax" - Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1883.
4.    I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." - Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943
5.    Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." - Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox, 1946

The world is full of uncertainty and it was Sir Isaac Newton's Principia that gave scientists the mathematical equations to predict the movement of the planets through laws of motion. But in the new universe, somethings are predictable but many are not and never will be because as the physicist and Nobel laureate David Gross likes to say. "However, the most important product of knowledge is ignorance." The more we learn, the more we reveal what we do not know.

"Brand Doppelgänger effect" researched by me is one such phenomenon which is very unpredictable in nature and the expert opinion and the consumers' choices may differ completely. Brand Doppelgänger is created through circulation of disparaging images on social media to destroy the brand image. The stronger the Doppelgänger, the monstrous the brand becomes. In my research, published in leading International Journals, I have found that the Indian Premiere League (IPL) Doppelgänger facets like match fixing, black money, players auctions etc. are perceived by the cricketing experts as a strong Doppelgänger and predicted that these would destroy the 20-20 cricketing league. Whereas the consumers thought otherwise. We all today know, the brand value of IPL has touched heights, in consonance to viewpoint of ordinary consumers, very violative of esteemed opinion of experts.

Better A Fox Than A Hedgehog
Expertise means more knowledge, and more knowledge produces more detail and complication. This complication leads to more uncertainty and harder to get precise outcome. So if the question is "What are the chances of India winning the next Cricket World Cup?" Someone who has only a few facts to go by may find they all point in one direction. But someone who has the big data-facts about team performances, weather & pitch conditions, players forms, Physical & Psychological fitness of players, Balling & batting strengths, and so on-won't take a one sided decision.

Foxes (Experts who know many things) are okay with that. They like complexity and uncertainty, even if that means they can only draw cautious conclusions and they have to admit they could be wrong. "Maybe" is fine with them.

But not the hedgehogs (Experts who know one big idea). They find complexity and uncertainty unacceptable. They like to KISS (Keep it Simple & Straight). And they are sure they can get them using the One Big Idea that drives their thinking. This is where they go wrong. As they say it is very difficult to predict when humans are involved, even Sir Isaac Newton stated that - "I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men." Though "Big data" and "evidence-based policy" are the dominant ideas of our moment, but according to Konstantin Kakaes "bad use of data can be worse than no data at all."

Therefore most experts are no better than "dart-throwing chimpanzees" at the presaging game. Worse, when challenged about their mistakes, many of them fail to own up - some try to fudge, while others claim to have been right all along. Experts may have their opinions but they are indeed wrong most of the time!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Gaurav Sood

The author is a brand communication professional, consultant and educator with two decade practice of creating strong brands

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