Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An Expert Opinion is Still an Opinion

It would probably be understatement to assert that JP Rangaswami does not think very much of Andrew Keen. Just for fun I decided to do a Google Reader search on "execrable" in his confused of calcutta blog and got only one hit among his posts and follow-up comments. The adjective was applied to Keen's writings, probably with regard to the his attack on the "Cult of the Amateur." This has led to JP mount a mini-campaign against Keen based on the following premise:

I’m a lot more worried about The Cult of The Expert than I am about The Cult Of The Amateur.

Truth be told, I, for one, get very suspicious whenever the noun "cult" is invoked; and JP would hardly be the first to try to knock down the pedestal on which we tend to place our experts. Bertrand Russell probably did it best when he said, "Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken." I actually got that quote from a paper by Ian Mitroff with the somewhat unwieldy title, "A Communication Model of Dialectical Inquiring Systems—A Strategy for Strategic Planning." However, any weakness in the title is made up for in the concluding remarks, which present the assertion that we should make a habit of challenging experts rather than trusting them. This then leads to the punch line (delivered in italics for emphasis): "no one can challenge an expert …like another expert …who is on the opposite side of the fence."

Alessandra Stanley, who first came to my attention with her perceptive analysis of the media ballyhoo behind Don Imus' act of political incorrectness, applied her analytic skills to yesterday's session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in her TV Watch column for this morning's New York Times. My guess is that she has never read anything by Mitroff (but would not be a stranger to Russell). However, she seems to have homed in on the fact that this session was all about challenging experts and assessing the expertise of the challengers. Furthermore, by viewing this event through William Paley's "bloodshot eye," Ms. Stanley could see that this was yet another instance of media manipulation, rather than anything as abstract as dialectical inquiry:

There is no “I” in senator, but it was inevitable that “I” would be the most pronounced pronoun of the day: panels that included Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, Christopher J. Dodd and Hillary Clinton, as well as a Republican candidate, John McCain, were bound to play to the camera. Democrats seeking to challenge the administration’s claims of progress wanted to signal that they had their own boots on the ground.

But viewers can take umbrage when civilians lecture men in uniform about the hazards and hardships of war. Most senators were experienced enough not to cross the line.

As a result, from Ms. Stanley's point of view, the expert best equipped to challenge the expert General David Petraeus was Senator Chuck Hagel, whom she introduced to the reader through the two Purple Hearts he had received in Vietnam. She quoted Hagel directly:

I’ve always found that you want an honest evaluation, and not through charts, not through the White House evaluations. You ask a sergeant or a corporal what they think. I’ll be on them every time, as I know you will. General, I know you will.

Like the subjects interviewed in Alive Day Memories, Hagel knows that this is not a matter of finding a simple answer to a complex question. However, he also knows that expert opinion must always be challenged; and he knows how to do this with not only his own expertise but also his ability to seek out experts where "conventional wisdom" tends not to look.

Unfortunately, Hagel probably also knows, as Ms. Stanley observed, that yesterday's Committee meeting had more to do with political theater than with the fate of the real "boots on the ground" (not to mention the rest of us back on the home front). If Hagel has chosen not to run for reelection because he has had enough of political theater, then he has my sympathies. As in just about any theater, the "productions" have run the entire gamut from the profound to the inane; but it seems as if, during the current decade, the "show" has been little more than American Idol. However, rather than bemoaning Hagel's departure from the scene, Ms. Stanley closed her own "review" with another "actor," who, while not yet fully prepared to challenge expertise at least has the perception to reflect on his own experiences:

Only one senator didn’t seem to understand the underlying point of the exercise yesterday. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee who was elected in 2006, admitted as much in his opening statement. “I know I’m new here,” he said, addressing Mr. Biden. “And I’m at a semilow point in the way we do things.”

Mr. Corker tried to defend the Iraqi government and its failure to achieve any degree of reconciliation. But he violated the code of Congressional omerta.

He explained that Iraqi officials work under difficult conditions. “Unlike us,” he said, “where we ride from nice homes to the Senate and work out in nice gyms.”

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