So it would appear that the so-called “experts” don’t always live up to their name. In his recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof ponders the growing evidence that expertise is, in his words, over-rated. His proof: a study by University of California Professor Philip Tetlock which found that the predictions of experts were “on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses – the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.” Worse, as Kristof notes, the least accurate experts were often the most famous (he blames the media).
From a communications perspective, however, the more interesting finding presented by Kristof was one which found that when a president takes to the airwaves to pitch his case the public opinion meter barely registers. But when the “experts” make the same case, they are able to move public opinion by more than three percentage points, because (says Kristof) “they seem to be reliable or impartial authorities“.
Indeed, this point only reinforces one of the key tenets of public relations – that being the importance of securing respected, third-party endorsement of your product, position, or policy – meaning, it’s better to have others speak well about you than you speaking well about you.
So who cares if they get it right or not? Certainly, in the past, it was much more difficult to track the records of the pundits and prognosticators. In this world of digital permanence, however, the “market for ideas” as Kristof calls it, is far more transparent. Pundits can no longer simply hold up their successes and bury their failures. Kristof calls for a system to evaluate the experts. I would suggest that to some extent it already exists. Let’s call it Google. More importantly, it speaks directly to the importance of trust. If the so-called pundits can no longer be trusted, who else is there?
Ultimately, however, organizations need to be far more careful with respect to the subject matter experts they trot out to the media. Fancy titles are no longer sufficient if their scorecard shows a record of fewer wins than losses no matter how sensational their sound bites.