Never ask an expert

Never ask an expert - image for article by Greg Alder

Everything that can be invented has been invented.

So said Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of US Patent Office, in 1899.

In the year after Charles boldly claimed that we’d reached the end as far as innovations go, his office received 41,898 patent applications.

These included patents for a refrigerator, a rotary engine and a mouse trap. Clearly someone saw a way to build a better mousetrap.

Last year 629,647 patent applications were lodged in the USA. Clearly a lot of people didn’t get Charles’s message.

Experts have a history of being wrong.

X-rays will prove to be a hoax.
Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1883

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?
Harry Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927

Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.
Irving Fisher, economist, 1929 (3 days before the Crash)

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.
Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943

The Beatles have no future in show business.
Dick Rowe, A&R manager, Decca Records, 1962

Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr famously said that

An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.

On that basis, we could classify Henry Earl an expert. Henry has the honour of being the world’s most arrested man. The 65-year-old has been arrested 1,500 times and spent nearly 6,000 days in jail. That would surely qualify him as an expert in his chosen field – public intoxication and disorderly conduct.

So why do experts get it wrong?

The main reason is expertise. The expert believes he or she knows the answer. This belief is often based on past experience. Past experience poorly prepares us for the future, especially when the future is dramatically different from what we’re used to.

The second reason experts get it wrong is group think. If a group of experts believes it, then it must be true. Anybody who expresses a view radically at odds with the group’s is dismissed as a ratbag. Or simply ignored.

To ask an expert is to invite a standard response – an accepted, tried and tired thesis.

To challenge an expert is to invite trouble.

Galileo Galilea discovered this when he claimed that earth revolved around the sun, a position at odds with the Catholic Church’s belief that earth was the centre of the universe.

And yet, to make real breakthroughs requires a disdain for accepted wisdom. It requires challenging the established rules.

Remember Mahatma Gandhi’s quote

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you and then you win.

I get nervous when someone introduces me as an expert. The word comes loaded with expectation. People secretly want you to be wrong.

I prefer to think like Japan’s Living National Treasures. These master craftsmen are recognised by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for their skill in crafts such as pottery, lacquerware and textiles. Even though many are in their eighties or nineties and have been perfecting their craft for decades, they describe themselves as novices, as students.

The hardest thing to do is to become expert at something without believing in your expertise.

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