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Who Discovers and Why

The Curse of Expertise

David Sackett, epidemiologist and evidence-based medicine proponent, has died this week. I’d heard of him, but I hadn’t seen his editorial about being an expert in one’s field. Not all experts have had the thoughts that he had about their situation, and even fewer of those have acted on them the way he did:

. . .It then dawned on me that experts like me commit two sins that retard the advance of science and harm the young. Firstly, adding our prestige to our opinions gives the latter far greater persuasive power than they deserve on scientific grounds alone. Whether through deference, fear, or respect, others tend not to challenge them, and progress towards the truth is impaired in the presence of an expert. The second sin of expertness is committed on grant applications and manuscripts that challenge the current expert consensus. Reviewers face the unavoidable temptation to accept or reject new evidence and ideas, not on the basis of their scientific merit, but on the extent to which they agree or disagree with the public positions taken by experts on these matters. . .
. . .Is redemption possible for the sins of expertness? The only one I know that works requires the systematic retirement of experts. To be sure, many of them are sucked into chairs, deanships, vice presidencies, and other black holes in which they are unlikely to influence the progress of science or anything else for that matter. Surely a lot more people could retire from their fields and turn their intelligence, imagination, and methodological acumen to new problem areas where, having shed most of their prestige and with no prior personal pronouncements to defend, they could enjoy the liberty to argue new evidence and ideas on the latter’s merits.
But there are still far more experts around than is healthy for the advancement of science. . .

Sackett started his expertise over more than once, but found that he kept becoming an expert again, no matter what. We need more people for whom that could possibly become a problem, and more people who would notice that it had become one.

28 comments on “The Curse of Expertise”

  1. Ghost of Paquette says:

    By far the biggest sin of an “expert” is to deny the grant application of a young, creative scientist only to resubmit the same proposal under your own name during the next cycle, not that this happened or anything…

  2. johnnyboy says:

    Interesting. For a person to recognize the potential ill-effect of their own success, and to actually act upon it, they must have amazing capacities for self-abnegation and altruism. I didn’t know of Sackett, but it looks like we lost a great man.

  3. NMH says:

    Its easy to be altruistic if you’re tenured and make 6 figs a year, no matter whether the grant comes in or not.
    Altruism is far more impressive in grad students and post-docs.

  4. bank says:

    The negative effect of “excessive expertise” is mitigated in part by double-blind review.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Expertise is the greatest and perhaps the only real barrier to new knowledge, because it implies (and often dictates) that all the questions have already been answered. Hubris, I hate it with a vengeance!

  6. annon too says:


  7. DCRogers says:

    Expertise (and other information I have about a person) helps me in deciding what level I need to review the various aspects of a scientific proposal, as it should. I am more willing to consider novel proposals from someone who I know has likely covered all of the niggling details without forcing me to cover it all, myself. The same proposal from an unknown at an obscure institution requires more work, and more skepticism, from me.
    That said, it’s tempting to overweight this descriptor, and save a lot of time. I’m reminded of the old I.T. joke – no-one has ever been fired for recommending a company buy from IBM. If I go out on a limb with a bona-fide ‘expert’ it’s much safer for me even if later the limb comes crashing down.
    But to expand on commenter #1, I agree that most pernicious effect of experts is indeed in funding – starving the young to feed the old, by whatever method, some immoral (as #1 pointed out) but mostly with no malice, just an unfortunate side effect of a supposedly meritocratic system, for how can young scientists prove their merit without those early chances?

  8. Wavefunction says:

    “An expert is someone who knows all the mistakes that can be made in his field.” – Heisenberg.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure that I agree entirely with his first part (prestige gives experts’ opinions more persuasive power than they deserve). It hints at anti-elitism. Why shouldn’t we give more weight to the arguments from an expert than from, say, Randy from Boise?
    If we don’t allow the prestige of experts to influence us in their area of expertise, we’ll end up listening to people like Jenny McCarthy instead.

  10. Hap says:

    People are almost certainly not going to be able to know everything in a field (even their own) and have to have some way to separate out what is useful from what isn’t, and have a lot of expertise in a field is one of the ways people use. It isn’t all, but it isn’t bad in itself. We want people to learn as much as they can about something, and most of the time, the knowledge we gain is helpful to get more knowledge, so excluding people from getting more knowledge because they have a lot seems like it could be a hindrance. There also is no likelihood that because I am smart in one area that I can be smart somewhere else; rarely is someone’s intelligence powerful enough to things in lots of fields, and we are lucky if we find one diamond mine in our lives. For the same reason, I’m hesitant to prevent older professors from getting funded; they do have lots of knowledge that can still be useful, and while we need to make sure we can train and use new people, we need to get knowledge as well, and having more expertise is a way to get more knowledge (most of the time).
    The problem is that we can’t know everything, and ways to sort through knowledge quickly can become stumbling blocks instead of stepping stones if we use them without thinking (because we’re lazy, or because we have finite time, or for many other reasons). Expertise is pretty useful, though, and getting rid of it to avoid idolatry seems like an overly costly cure for idolatry. Some sort of blinded peer review would help, but it seems hard to really blind peer review.

  11. RM says:

    Anonymous@9 – In science, arguments should stand on strength of evidence rather than on the stature of those making them. Experts’ arguments are trusted because they’re correct, rather than because they’ve been made by experts.
    So if Randy from Boise (or an obscure patent clerk from Bern) comes up with a revolutionary way of looking at the world – and the math and experiments all check out – we should listen to them. Conversely, if someone is dribbling nonsense you should ignore them, whether they be Jenny McCarthy or Jonas Salk (or Linus Pauling or Francis Collins). Jenny McCarthy isn’t unreliable because she isn’t an immunologist, she’s unreliable because she’s using incorrect facts and shoddy logic.
    The one use of expertise is as a nice heuristic about which arguments might be worth the time to examine in detail. Linus Pauling is much less likely to make common, silly mistakes than Randy from Boise (c.f. Wavefunction@8). So the time to read and understand a paper by Pauling is more likely to pay off than one by Randy. That’s no guarantee though, so when it comes to the nuts and bolts of actually doing science (as distinct from writing lay summaries of it), all evidence should be treated on its merits, rather than the CV of the person presenting it or which journal it’s been published in.

  12. Biotech Capitalist says:

    Can the elimination of faculty tenure (the institutionalization of expertise) mitigate this?

  13. RM says:

    Anonymous@9 – Also, a distinction should be drawn between “internal” and “external” deference to experts. This discussion is mainly talking about “internal” deference, done by people who have the ability to independently evaluate the strength of the evidence. This is different from “external” deference, done by people who are not able to make independent evidence-based evaluations, and thus are limited to the proxy of expertise.
    If you’re a lay person, deferring to expert opinion make sense, given you don’t really have enough knowledge to do otherwise. If it’s in your field, though, you’re abdicating your scientific responsibility if you shrug your shoulders and say “they’re the expert!”

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’m still struggling to accept the fact that we need a proponent for “evidence-based medicine.”
    Why do WE have to carry the literary burden on this one?
    I think we should start collectively start referring to non “evidence-based medicine” as “whim-based medicine” or “hope-based medicine.”
    How about “care-free medicine?”
    We can go back to just calling the evidence-based stuff “medicine.”
    Of course, I’m no expert…

  15. Pete says:

    Every expert has an applicability domain. And a shelf life. I’ve linked ‘expertitis’ as the URL for this comment

  16. steve says:

    Robert Heinlein: “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done and why. Then do it.”

  17. Anonymous says:

    Interesting to see these opinions in this blog.
    With so many 30+ years veterans in drug hunting out of a job, my experience in the industry the last few years has been the opposite of “expertitis” (“naivetitis”?).
    Namely, colleagues with little to no exposure to industrial drug discovery, fresh from academic PhD or postdocs, becoming project leaders in a couple of years. Obviously, their projects go nowhere, and major resources are wasted in predictably unnecessary work.
    What happened to the 10 years of practice needed to understand what you are doing in drug discovery?
    I thought “ignorance is bless” meant something different…

  18. Anonymous says:

    Some cancer experts who retracted papers would be the living proof of too many experts

  19. tangent says:

    We can go back to just calling the evidence-based stuff “medicine.”
    Back? In what Eden was medicine systematically evidence-based? Medicine has a centuries-long track record of the crudest sort of empiricism: I saw patients get better after this treatment, so it’s real. There are real reasons why doctors aren’t all running controlled experiments on their patients, but evidence-based this practice is not.

  20. Anonymous says:

    99% of the time though, #17, these veteran ‘drug hunters’ have never been anywhere near anything that has ended up on the market. Their projects have gone nowhere, and major resources have been wasted in predictably unnecessary work (see what I did there?).
    I just find it extremely unfair you lay the blame on those you believe to be inferior to these allegedly uber-experienced ‘drug hunters’. These folks enjoyed the good, fat years of pharma (80s and 90s) – surely if they were as good as you say, pipelines would be full to bursting today?

  21. dearieme says:

    The Telegraph carried an obituary this morning but it doesn’t seem to be available online yet.

  22. Anonymous says:

    @21: What was the obituary for, the pharma industry?

  23. Anonymous says:

    @ Anonymous #20
    Well… The drug hunters I refer to are well respected by the community, and have been members of teams which delivered several marketed drugs over the last 3 decades. And probably you and I and several readers have a paycheck today due in part to some of their efforts in the past.
    I think we are talking about two different attributes of humans: wisdom and arrogance.
    I hope we are not arguing that wisdom and knowledge are something bad for decision making, as much as we are not arguing that arrogance is bad.
    And yes, I get what you did 😉

  24. DCRogers says:

    #13: “Can the elimination of faculty tenure (the institutionalization of expertise) mitigate this?”
    This would be a highly successful way of getting faculty to take even fewer risks with their research proposals, and ensure that any proposals made thoroughly conform to whatever the groupthink of the day is.

  25. Esteban says:

    One funeral at a time…
    Speaking of funerals, I look forward to the day the sorely outdated low fat/high carb dogma embedded in the FDA food pyramid will finally be buried.

  26. Ted says:

    All of the sub-disciplines of science (the ‘true’ or Scottish sciences, that is….) followed an evolutionary progression from gross empirical observations to hypothesis-driven systematic evaluation. But no one refers to “evidence-based” chemistry or “evidence-based” physics. The “evidence-based” part is implied. I think I may wrung my earlier comments overly wry…

  27. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    The mention of Linus Pauling above brings to mind a related point about experts: their opinions only have special weight in fields where they have expertise. Pauling had a world-class mind and was spectacularly right about many things. But he was also very probably wrong about some things.
    Even very smart people do not have universal expertise. My views in the specific areas where I have expertise mean a heck of a lot more than my views about, say, Economics or Military Strategy (because I lack expertise in those fields).
    In fields where I lack expertise, I am guided by the consensus of those who do have expertise in that field.
    I form my opinions about news media outlets largely by how they handle matters about which I happen to have expertise. If they get it badly wrong in cases where I know the subject, how much can I trust their reporting in areas where I lack expertise?

  28. Anonymous says:

    I totally agree with you.
    Unfortunately we humans working in drug discovery seem to translate expertise beyond what’s reasonable and justified.
    You’d think having a scientific training would make you more rational… Apparently that is not the case.

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