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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
17 Dec 2014
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Experts Aren't Deities


Let's look at experts. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a mathematician and scientist. Newton has to be the greatest and most influential scientist who has ever lived. He laid the foundation for classical mechanics, and his genius transformed our understanding of science, particularly in the areas of physics, mathematics and astronomy. What's not widely known is that Newton spent most of his waking hours on alchemy; his experiments included trying to turn lead into gold. Though he wrote volumes on alchemy, after his death Britain's Royal Society deemed that they were "not fit to be printed."

Lord William Thomson Kelvin (1824-1907) was a Belfast-born British mathematical physicist and engineer. Kelvin's major contribution was in thermodynamics, and he is widely recognized for determining the correct value of absolute zero, approximately minus 273 degrees Celsius. In his honor, absolute temperatures are expressed in Kelvin units. Being an expert in one field doesn't spare one from being an arrogant amateur in others. Based on his knowledge of heat dissipation, Kelvin criticized geologists of his day and claimed that Earth was between 20 million and 100 million years old. Kelvin also said that "X-rays will prove to be a hoax," but he changed his mind after he experienced an X-ray of his own hand. Kelvin also predicted, "I can state flatly that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."

Linus Pauling (1901-94) was one of the most influential chemists in history. He was one of the founders of the field of quantum chemistry and is often called the father of molecular biology. Pauling won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962, making him the only person awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes. Later, he was awarded the International Lenin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples by the Soviet Union. Many of Pauling's colleagues who admired his scholarly work saw him as a naive spokesman for Soviet communism.

Despite his genius in science, Pauling peddled fringe ideas.

In the 1970 edition of his book "Vitamin C and the Common Cold," he said that taking 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily will reduce the incidence of colds by 45 percent. In the book's 1976 revision, retitled "Vitamin C, the Common Cold and the Flu," he recommended higher vitamin C dosages. In his third revision, "Vitamin C and Cancer" (1979), Pauling claimed that high doses of vitamin C may also be effective against cancer. In another book, "How to Live Longer and Feel Better" (1986), Pauling argued that megadoses of vitamins, such as the 12,000 to 40,000 milligrams he took daily, "can increase your enjoyment of life and can help in controlling heart disease, cancer, and other diseases and in slowing down the process of aging." There's absolutely no research that backs up any of Pauling's vitamin C claims.

The take-home lesson is that experts are notoriously fallible outside of their fields of endeavor — and especially so when making predictions. There tends to be an inverse relationship between a predictor's level of confidence and the accuracy of his prediction. Irving Fisher, a distinguished Yale University economics professor in 1929, predicted, "Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." Three days later, the stock market crashed. In 1954, Dr. W.C. Heuper of the National Cancer Institute said, "If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one." Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943 allegedly said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." "(Research on the atomic bomb) is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives." That was Adm. William Leahy's prediction in 1945.

The bottom line is that the fact that a person has academic degrees, honors and status is no reason for us to abandon our tools of critical thinking.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



11 Comments | Post Comment
While it's undoubtedly true that experts often believe weird things when venturing outside their own fields, it's generally because they apply the same confidence that they apply to things they don't know about that they've learned through really knowing a certain subject matter. In other words, experts can and should be believed when they're talking about their field of expertise.

As a point in fact, Watson's remark, though frequently quoted as being shortsighted was actually far-sighted. In a very real sense, the Internet is one huge computer system (albeit with many nodes and processors). So Watson's real error may have been OVERestimating the number of computers that the world needs.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Geoffrey James
Mon Jan 21, 2013 8:11 AM
I admire Dr. Williams' intelligence and insight - and his frank ability to say things that need saying. Along the line of experts adrift in other fields, my father, who was a commercial pilot for 35 years, told me once that, in his opinion, the most dangerous pilots in the sky were 50 year-old doctors. It made sense. Doctors are used to being treated as omniscient and they have the money to buy their own planes. They were also most likely to attempt things with their planes that were far beyond their actual skills.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Maggie Lawrence
Mon Jan 21, 2013 10:35 AM
Sir... The right has done nothing but make our climate and educational issues worse by denying the intelligence, learning, morality and conclusions of vast numbers of experts...There are times when smart people have got to have the floor, and people with less education should give way... Not always, and here I will agree with you; but mostly....
I mean; much of the economic theory of Marx is taught in universities without anyone giving him the credit because all of the hyperbole surrounding his name would detract from the value of the lesson which no modern economist would be without...Marx, for his part recognized the value of Adam Smith, and the limited value of Ricardo... There have been, and are at present multibillionaires steeped in the tea of materialist economic theory, because it is true and reflects reality; but in the process of escaping highschool, idiots are force fed the notion of free enterprise and political freedom as synonymous...In fact, inequality of wealth leads to political inequality that is the death of democracy, and we can see it before our eyes..
We let outmoded notions of political and economic theory rule us through principals no one can challenge, and we are constantly hamstrung by the classes formed by property and religious privlilage so that we see our whole population ignorant and sullen, unable to compete or demand its rights...It is not simply that we cannot be educated short of accepting slavery, but so much of our primary and secondary education is dominated by ideology and misinformation on the facts...When will we forbid the intrusion of economic and religious forces into our educational system???
When will we as a people see intelligent and educated people in positions of political power... We elect faces, and characters while the Chinese who are beating the crap out of our economy are electing engineers... What are our schools producing??? We produce vast numbers of journalist when there is not a job for one in five... We produce great numbers of psychologists and sociologist presumably in answer to all the felt need while budgets are being slashed and people are handed anti depressants, and anti anxiety meds by the gross... Where do all these people find employment??? In advertizing??? In politics??? Anyone looking at this people can see we are as insane as so many Yahoos; but to challenge the insanity of following religion or economic principals into decline and destruction is seen as unpatriotic...
Do we produce enough of lawyers???When no one can fart without a lawyer in their pocket; I would say yes... The more law we have the less law works because people do not bear that sort of debt, or work that hard to learn in order to work, and the whole notion of it- is following failed principals into a ditch..
Here you are, set up as an expert running down experts... Why should anyone believe you... I was taught long ago to look in every book I bought to find the achievement of the author in education... When I see PHD; I begin to respect; but some PHDs are dumb as fence posts...You still have to make your argument, but you almost have to have reached some level of education before I will listen to you... And that may seem perverse, since I have only had my foot in the door of a university... So, my foot is educated; but my head is only learned, mostly from reading...And I will agree that being an expert in one field does not give a person the means to speak on all subjects...
Some philosophers have been terrible on political issues... Plato ticked off Dionysius I. and ended up sold as a slave, but was bought by a friend of philosophy...Aristippus worked for the same guy without trouble because money talks, and the initiated hear...Heidegger fell big for hitler and shamed us all; and still made a contribution... It is easy to say that the more a person knows, the more they should confine themselves to generalities if for no better reason than self preservation... In most places and here especially the vast numbers of ignorant hold the intelligent and enducated in comtempt, and more than criminals, they fear them in control of the government...
There is no doubt that Lincoln was born for philosophy, having as he did a mind for geometry; but an understanding so great that could only lead him into the paradoxes and contradictions of his time, and ultimately to his devotion...Mark Twain to was one of our greats, but Santayana was better, and William James was Great; but for his time, so was Jefferson, and the fact is that no matter how expert a person is in a given field, their obligation is to their society and is to speak up for the benefit as they see it of their society, regardless...
I am formally uneducated... My writing offends and my reasoning sucks in the eyes of some; and yet I am given to public service as much as any other... My experiences have been unique and a driving force, but all our experiences have been unique and most of us who speak feel driven to do so...I do not presume to be taken seriously... I expect to be not taken... It is only because I feel I am right without degree or diploma that I raise a fuss... I might have stuck with education, but I was living too fast for it, already with a child and a job...
If a person is without life experience he is as much at a disadvantage as one with life experience and no education... To have an education puts a person above the most crucial life experiences...To look at some of our social problems abstractly is to not see them at all, and to see them at all, as human problems makes their abstraction impossible...So if I seem to wander here, it is only to say that I get your point, and it has some merit, but you are wrong... People have the obligation to speak up and demand to be heard...Often the most educated are the least capable of understanding in a moral sense... But who else is there... I know a lot, but without a lot of alphabet soup after my name I can hardly demand to be taken seriously... Do you get my point??
If I were to go to a doctor or a lawyer and pay for advice and not take it; then I would be following my own inclination... Our problem is not just not taking the advice of intelligent and educated people speaking out of their field of expertise; but not taking the advice of people speaking of what they know, as in that of historians, educators, and scientists...
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Jan 21, 2013 4:03 PM
Sir;... I wonder if I can say in short what I have said long, and otherwise do better at it...
People are by nature moralists... What we do by abstraction and learning has little to do with the moral sense we acquire before we can reason effectively... People are what they do, and they do according to what they think, but a person's moral sense is who they are, and that is how they feel... It is difficult at best to mix these two... Rational people have a tendency to look at morals rationally, and seek a rational system of morals; and most people who are moral simply do not do likewise because they cannot judge themselves but subjectively and irrationally...
To see you, as a relatively well educated person floundering around in morals is like seeing a carp caught in the shallows while spawning... If you had a good reason once to be there, you are not where you belong...If there is a logic to morals, and a reason to them, it is one that must be discerned after the fact...There is no rational explanation for any individually acting morally; and there is every reason in the world for societies to be moral...This is the contradiction at the heart of the destruction of all societies...
I do not expect people educated in other fields to stop pronouncing upon morality, since it is a natural activity... People should take their grandmothers seriously before taking any expert seriously about morality... The two behaviors, seeking knowledge and living morally are often in stark contradiction in the sense that we must learn reason to overcome instints because morality is most often instinctual, and is always besed upon instinct...Take my advice: Do what you are good at, and you are flat rotten at morality...
PS:... It is easy to malign some one like Newton who was as good that physics in Gross as he was for toying with Alchemy and the mythology surrounding it...Alchemy was the begining of chemistry, and there is no true line between chemestry and nuclear physics... Compounds, for example, have much of the characteristics from the atoms they are made of, and yet, for some one in Newton's age without technology, to tell much of atomic characteristics out of gross compounds and amalgrams would have been unlikely...Any history of chemistry and phsyics will reveal in short order what a slow a laborious process our science is made of...
Where do you come by your contempt of educated people???... I look at the struggles for knowledge this whole people has made that are no less than sacrifice and devotion, only to see it sold cheap to our enemies for a quick profit...There have always been great minds, but what is wanted was pressing questions and the technology to answer them... The world has many great minds, and we have given them the plum of our technology for nothing, and all the while, and again, for profit, we have been starving our own educational system...The whole tilt of the class you represent favors anti education, anti knowledge, anti science, anti patriotic nuts...What is it we need that you won't sell cheap to those who hate us???
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Jan 22, 2013 4:45 AM
"Sir... The right has done nothing but make our climate and educational issues worse by denying the intelligence, learning, morality and conclusions of vast numbers of experts...There are times when smart people have got to have the floor, and people with less education should give way... Not always, and here I will agree with you; but mostly...."

You should read this paragraph to yourself, Sweeney, before you type.

Comment: #5
Posted by: SusansMirror
Tue Jan 22, 2013 8:13 AM
Re: SusansMirror;... Perhaps Susan; but more rational people are often less moral, and less able to conceive of morality as a way of life; and Mr. Williams is a rational person if we assume economics is guided by rational principals, and I cannot agree that it is, but only that economist think it so because they try to learn it and teach it, and one can only learn and teach what follows some law or reason...
The fact that Mr. williams is an economist does not stop him from offering moral justifications for the failures of capitalism...Is he then speaking as an economist, or a moralist??? I speak as a moralist, but I do not do so rejecting any supposed authority on the subject even while figuring out some few things on my own...The world has produced many examples of societies that in following their own inclination, that is, the inclinations of classes or of ruling individuals, -soon ruined themselves, and became artifacts of history... This is only natural since an individual's self consciousness seldom leads to a wide spread social consciousness... Even if individual consciousness could be made social, it would not necessarily be better for society because only rarely can people be made to see, think, and act rationally...
People like Freud, and Nietzsche have long since pointed out the obvious, that people are not very rational... Do you think all the old testament prophets preaching in vain about the end and result of all the immorality of the rich in their times were not heard because they did not present themselves rationally, or present the relationship of God to his people well, or clearly???
People doing what they do with an eye to their own self improvement can act, and usually do act against the accepted morals of their society... Yet the morals of their society protect them while they work at the destruction of the society that makes their welbeing possible...
Those prophets could be writing for us today, and we should read them as if they are, and if we take no others for our moral authorities we could correct our behavior...We cannot act more rationally than knowledge permits, nor act as morally as emotions, which is to say, irrationality would demand... We have no national morality, but we do have many people making a national morality impossible... So it is every man for himself, and that means no concerted defense against our enemies, within, or without our society...
As I may have written, morality is a human activity... It is hard to find people without a sense of right or wrong, and if you do, in the words of Johnson, you should count the silverwear when they leave... We find extreme cases of people with no sense of right or wrong dead by their own hands at the scene of the crime... Since nothing of life means anything to them at an emotional level there is nothing in thought, no matter how rational they are-, and some of our mass murderers have been extremely rational, such as this latest, the one in Colorado, and the unibomber- to stop them from acting as they think... It takes more than reason to make a person human, and it takes more than reason to make them moral...
Take it or leave it...We are all moralists, but I am no authority...I am not telling you what to do, and only offering a moral argument...Which is not only my right, but my obligation...
Let me say, that community is morality... We may view those who willingly step outside of community and morality as though they are our own, but that is not so based upon their intent... People put themselves outside of their communities by their own action and thought... If I think to dress and behave like all the rest in my community only to prey upon them better, that does not make me one with them... It is our shared morality that gives us our places in our community, and some people are just too good for us...
Comment: #6
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Jan 22, 2013 10:42 AM
@Sweeney. Still at it, I see. Throw a lot of words at a subject, use run-on sentences, completely fail to make any sense and hope you sound like the all knowing, all seeing answer to everyone's prayers. Nice try, but still no cigar.
Comment: #7
Posted by: P. Long
Tue Jan 22, 2013 4:37 PM
Re: P. Long
You too, are still at it, I see.
You can teach someone to read, comprehension is another matter. That you get nothing from Sweeney's post above your own tells more about you than about Sweeney. He's no more a writer than you or me, yet you would critique his writing style. It's far more difficult to read Sweeney's comments, true, to those used to grammatical syntax or the average reading materials geared to a seventh/eighth grade reading comprehension level. No personal diss to you, mass circulation newpapers were geared to eighth grade level in the 70's and 80's. I presume they still are.
I doubt if you would, but should you attempt to read some English speaking/writing authors from just a century or so ago, you'd find yourself struggling with wording, spelling, and grammatical syntax. Many great authors had little formal education and their style of writing and spelling when published with editing and spelling of the times is still difficult to read, but worthwhile. The few writings of Shakespeare that I was able and willing to muddle through comes to mind as my most difficult read at the time. While I agree it's much faster to read and comprehend orderly writing with today's spelling of words, it's far more satisfying to me to read as the author speaks. I assure you, in my daily life, I don't speak as I write, few do. The word "mess" is in messenger, Sweeney's writing is messy, but there's more often than not some good messages buried in there. Maybe not appreciated by you, but there just the same.
Comment: #8
Posted by: morgan
Wed Jan 23, 2013 6:03 AM
Re: P. Long... No cigar for me... Just fine, since I have asthma... You are welcome to remind me of my faults of which I am only too well aware...And I know I may seem an all knowing wannabee; but books are just like transmissions, in that you never really know what you will find in them until you open them up, and I have opened a lot... Don't get the opinion that just because worked Iron for the bigger part of my life that I don't know of what I speak... It is a presumption no one should make of those who work at manual labor that they have no choice... Perhaps I did not...I was not cut out for it physically or mentally... It beat me up and tossed me out...There were smart people in my business, some well educated, and some genius or two... And there are smart people everywhere... And it is hard to imagine what I would have really been good at... History would have been fun... Psychology would have been cool if I could have hid the fact that I had more issues than my patients...The point of my digression is this: If it was possible as has been suggested, that with twelve apostles, that Jesus could have sampled the breadth of knowledge in his time, what may a person know today with some contact with intelligent people, and a great library???
I have tried a lot of things, and when good enough, I moved on... Ethics, and morality that I came into the back door of, is one of those things I know something of, that no one can know every thing of...Everyone is a moralist, but some people settle for pat answers that only justify what they want to do to begin with...Hemingway said something like: You know it is moral if you feel good after, and immoral if you feel bad after... That depends imo on whether a person is good enough to feel bad about doing harm...It is also cool if you can get people to think, and feel before they act... But primarily, I think moral action is the natural product of a moral person...My test is in justification...
If I have to justify it, I know it is wrong, and yet, like most things, I take it to the extreme... If I find a shirt in the street I worry about whether some one really wants it, and may come looking for it...It happens... There is a laundry mat around the corner from here, and some times, whether it is from tossing a basket in the back of a pick-up, or leaving it on the roof of the car, there will be a trail of clothes... Legally, no amount of found stuff belongs to a finder, so I must justify... Shall I leave it in the street, or call the cops, or hang it on my mail box??? If it is so impossible for me to justify taking a shirt off a street that is used to being naked, how impossible would it be to take the shirt of a person's back for any good reason???
What is just needs no justification, and if I am just as a person, moral, I will do justice and act morally because it is essential to civil society which is as all forms of relationship: One on One...That is just another justification for doing right... In fact, to know we belong in society, and to have no doubt about our rights we treat others as we would desire to be treated, but there is no rational defense for justice as there is for injustice... Community is not just a place, but a feeling we have all felt in the arms of our mothers, of love and of loving, and peace... Community is morality, and do not tell me you are moral while caught in the destruction of our community...
Comment: #9
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Wed Jan 23, 2013 6:39 AM
Item 6 in Lt. General Hal Moore's Leadership Lessons for Succes states that "Everything in leadership boils down to judgment. Intelligence and good character do not imply you gave good judgement."
Comment: #10
Posted by: Al Lampe
Thu Jan 24, 2013 7:29 AM
Re: Al Lampe;... Napoleon asked his generals if they were lucky when promoting them...We forget what close affairs most big battles are, turning on the character and fight of a few brave men in many instances... But so much of a battle is won before the first shot is fired, on the intelligent choice of battlefield, of always keeping interior lines, of choosing fatal ground only out of necessity for your own men, and denying fatal ground to the enemy, and of logistics, of never letting actions exceed ones supplies, and remembering that the will to fight depends upon the people at home having enough, and not so much that they do not feel the sacrifice of war...
Great generals are great engineers... Math ability is more essential than human qualities...The ability to ask the impossible of people, as when Gamel Attaturk told his men fighting the British: I am not asking you to fight... I am asking you to die...
Intelligence and good character are essential to success in all of life... Stone Wall Jackson was neither smart nor intelligent, but he mastered a few techniques essential to success, like surprise; what he called mystery, and discipline...
Generally, I would say that the general without intelligence is no general, and the man without good character is no man... Intelligence is judgement because it depends upon knowledge, and knowledge is judgement- in the words of Kant...But to make ones judgements in the light of ones community, within the milieu of honor in ones community is good character... One can have victory without having peace...Lasting peace demands good character from each side...
Comment: #11
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Fri Jan 25, 2013 4:38 AM
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