The Expert’s Fallacy

I watched a TV show a couple of days ago called ‘Koppen XL’. It’s basically a documentary, and each week they tackle a different subject. This week the subject was ‘Do experts really have the expertise they lead us to believe?’. I thought this was very interesting because we’re being bombarded by experts from all sides. Nutrition experts, marriage councilors, wine tasters, management consultant and HR experts.


The funny thing that came forward in the documentary is that most experts are quacks and they know nearly nothing about their chosen subject. Furthermore, these so-called experts say things that are contradictory. For example, the one nutrition expert says that you need a healthy, large breakfast while the other one says that you should only eat a piece of fruit. And there are tons more of these ‘experts’ with other theories. Or wine taster who can’t taste the difference between red wine and white wine (with a drop of coloring fluid to make it look like red wine).

It’s the same in the human resources field. Just think about how many books there are about best practices, for example ‘in search of excellence’ written by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.. It’s one of the best-selling and most widely read business books ever.

Peters and Waterman found eight common themes which they argued were responsible for the success of the chosen corporations. The book devotes one chapter to each theme:

  1. A bias for action, active decision-making – ‘getting on with it’. Facilitate quick decision-making & problem solving tends to avoid bureaucratic control
  2. Close to the customer – learning from the people served by the business.
  3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship – fostering innovation and nurturing ‘champions’.
  4. Productivity through people- treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
  5. Hands-on, value-driven – management philosophy that guides everyday practice – management showing its commitment.
  6. Stick to the knitting – stay with the business that you know.
  7. Simple form, lean staff – some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
  8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties – autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values.

In essence, they try to formulate a best way to do something which they illustrate by giving examples of companies. Their choice of companies was very poor though (NCR, Wang Labs, Xerox) as they did not achieve the excellent results the book promised.

What I’m really trying to say here is that there’s no one perfect solution that works for every organisation and that these so-called experts are really just people who ‘pretend’ to have the end-all-be-all solution. That point was emphasized by one of my teachers in college, and he’s right. That’s why copy-pasting HR policies or any other policy won’t work, sure you can use the basic framework but what worked for one company won’t necessarily mean it will work for yours.

Now, let’s circle back to the experts. The reality is that we pay experts because of their image and because we can then say ‘but the expert told us that this was the way to go’. In essence, to lend credibility to our decisions and actions.

Don’t get me wrong though, there really are some experts but it’s important that even they make mistakes (hopefully less than the ‘rookies’) and are often insecure. For me, I have my suspicions when someone says something with absolute certainty. ‘You HAVE to do this, This IS the way to go’. A real expert, in my eyes, is someone who questions himself, studies his environment and doesn’t shower everyone in technical terms to display his ‘expertise’.

In essence, I think you can’t really be an expert in the social sciences such as HR or psychology (or even economics, which isn’t an exact science either like they teach you in school)

You can trust me on this, I am an expert in the field of … uh … Well, never mind.

Niels Van Hellemont

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5 thoughts on “The Expert’s Fallacy

  1. I don’t disagree with your conclusion, however I do feel there is a fallacy in your logic. To assume that Mr. Peters and Mr. waterman were not experts based on the selection of companies they used is a little misguided in my opinion. You have the benefit of hindsight. At the time they wrote the book the management could have been absolutely phenomenal, but the leadership changes over time and eventually so does the culture. I think Apple is a well run company today. 50 years from now Apple may go bankrupt. That however does not mean it is not well run today. I hope you can appreciate that point as I can appreciate your conclusion.

    Beware of experts that we willing to rent their expertise to you.

    A thought provoking post.

    • Niels says:

      Thank you for your comment. And I can defintely see your point, and looking back to it you might be right. I’ll give it some more thought!

      • Raj says:

        Interesting debate. The message I get is to be careful not to assume a published, intelligent person with tonnes experience and charisma has all the answers. I’ve read some of Tom Peters work and I personally liked it. That said, you could view Tom as having missed a popular insight in his book:

        For a company to be truly great “Perhaps” they need to have level 5 leadership (From Good to Great). This type of leadership is “more likely” to guarantee success 50years down the road assuming Jim Collins is an expert and either Jim or some other “expert” doesn’t come up with something new in the years to come.

        What I’m personally trying to do, is a build a framework to help me figure out what I think in a given situation. Do either of you know of a field of study that talks about The Expert Fallacy and how it impacts us? i.e. How can we avoid falling into the trap of considering ourselves experts to our own demise …

  2. […] what exactly is gamification? It’s a popular buzzword nowadays but a lot of people or “experts” use it without really knowing what it […]

  3. Moritz says:

    The last two paragraphs are the important ones. Just because someone has theories and experience and has published, does not guarantee that he/she is an expert. You can act based on your theories forever and appear successful, if it is never compared to other ways. I can hire one type of person for years and the company works, but that does not prove that this is the ideal candidate. Experts bled their patients for decades. -> Experts without falsification are just quacks. There is also a problem with the use of financial/banking/business experts as macroeconomic experts, they fall for the paradox of thrift and other discrepancies between individual rationality and common rationality (Rationalitätenfalle, Konkurrenzparadoxon, Sparparadoxon) all too often.

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