Five questions for Josh Freed
In his latest documentary, The Trouble with Experts, filmmaker Josh Freed tackles the question: Should we trust the experts? J-Source's Rhiannon Russell talks with Freed about why we sometimes shouldn't, how to be more careful when interviewing experts, and which field has the most of the worst.
J-Source: When did you start realizing how fallible experts can be?
Josh Freed: It was just after the 2008 stock meltdown. I was sort of struck by how all the financial gurus and experts were wrong. I figured if all the financial gurus were wrong, what about the other experts out there? So, over the next year, we started looking into diet experts and wine experts and political experts and any kind of expert we could think of and the amazing thing is … most experts actually don’t know what they’re talking about. I got a bit surprised. I didn’t go into it expecting it to work.
J-Source: As journalists, we often need to quote people who know what they’re talking about and appear confident and assured, but often, according to your doc, these people are the most wrong. How can we be more careful when interviewing experts?
JF: The thing we should be doing that we don’t do is looking at their track record. You’d like to see an expert come up and say, “Last 10 predictions: eight out of 10 wrong.” And the guy beside him, “Last predictions: seven out of 10 right.” Then you would know who to listen to, right? We forget their predictions. And we call them back regardless. The least we can do is make sure we double check and see if people are right. If they’re wrong a lot of the time, then maybe we should consider switching off of them. Also, I think the big one you have to ask is, what are the real credentials? How did they end up being an expert? It’s very easy to become a talking head these days.
J-Source: What about people who consume media? How can I know that an expert quoted in a news article is legitimate?
JF:I think any time you see dramatic predictions and dramatic conclusions, you should ask yourself, “What’s the likeliness this is true?” Because most things don’t happen in dramatic ways. When people predict them, more often than not, they’re wrong -- people are telling you this food will save your life, or this diet will change you. When you talk to the real experts, people who’ve studied things for years and years, they’ll tell you, “We really don’t know.” The uncertain expert tends to be the one who’s right most often. And no matter who your expert is, try to read as many as possible. They say 1 million experts divided by 1 million is the best expert. Experts average out.
J-Source: Journalists are taught to avoid jargon in their writing. Wannabe experts are encouraged to use lots of it. Do you see a correlation here?
JF: I think jargon, in many fields, is a way for the expert to make him or herself seem higher than you. Because by throwing around bafflegab, they give themselves a mystique and you can’t penetrate that. So therefore, they must know more than you, because they speak in these terms you don’t understand. Rather than being impressed, try to think that they’re trying to impress you. And if they’re trying to impress you, why? It might be because they don’t know as much as they say they do.
J-Source: Which field do you think has the most bad experts?
JF: When push comes to shove, the financial world does seem to get it wrong most often. It’s really difficult to predict the world of finance. There was a great belief for a long time that science had conquered finance, and that all these formulas could predict the future. It isn’t a science. Finance has no scientific basis to it whatsoever. Because it hides behind the idea of being a science, it’s probably the one we get wrong the most. Sadly enough, it’s probably the one that matters the most. It’s just a big casino out there in the stock market. It’s not really about the formulas, it’s about psychology. It’s about how people are going to respond to the news, and if they all start to sell their stocks or they all start to buy their stocks, that’s going to change the economy. And nobody can predict that. It’s about human behaviour.