Monday, January 23, 2012

WRONG: Why experts keep failing us—and how to know when not to trust them

By David H. Freedman

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

The author is :a science and business journalist.”  Outside of appendices, notes, and index, the text is 230 pages long, and there are 11 pages of notes.

There are a number of reasons I liked this book.  First, it is very well-written.  Second, it covers areas (finance, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, consultants, health, and more) with which I have some interest (although no expertise).

The third reason I liked this book is that it offers great evidence, interesting facts, and fascinating statistics and insights I would probably never gather elsewhere.  The fourth reason is that it produces skeptics.  Whether you accept Freedman’s ideas or not, he certainly opens your eyes and makes you question — something we all should be doing all of the time.  (If nothing else, it is what colleges and universities should be good at promoting.)

I enjoyed Freedman’s examination of the various safeguards that we have to try to root out and address fraud.  As I was preparing this review of his book (on January 6, 2011), the British Medical Journal (BMJ) just pronounced a Lancet study by lead scientist Andrew Wakefield, M.D., that connected the Mumps, Measles, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism as an “elaborate fraud.”  An ironic juxtaposition, to say the least.

On page 120 Freedman writes, “Thank goodness for peer review, the 350-year-old research-journal tradition of sending candidate articles out to knowledgeable researchers for vetting and comments.” — even though he admits that peer review provides only a minimal assurance of quality, and that “lousy research can slip past peer review into journals” (p. 121).  Having been part of a number of peer-review teams during my tenure as a university professor, I have to agree with Freedman; however, I also agree that there is really little other way to prevent lousy research from getting published.  The Internet makes “publication” an easy process.

What Freedman does is open the whole area of fraud and “the fraudulent police” to further discussion.  His chapter conclusions (see page 124) are right on target about scientists.

Freedman’s comment about determining whether or not Internet information is accurate was well taken: “ . . . we’re back to that problem of whether most people in the public are equipped to track down high-quality information on the Internet, as opposed to ending up with advice that may look convincing but is in fact junk” (p. 201).  Of course, with respect to students (and the public, too), this isn’t a new concern, it is simply a much bigger concern with the glut of information at our fingertips.

Every student should be required to read Chapter 9, “Eleven Simple Never-Fail Rules for Not Being Misled by Experts” (pp. 203-230).  Even though the rules are generic, they are important and well explained here.  His “Typical Characteristics of Less Trustworthy Expert Advice,” “Characteristics of Expert Advice We Should Ignore,” and “Some Characteristics of More Trustworthy Expert Advice” is priceless, essential, practical, and incredibly relevant in today’s information-saturated world.

WRONG: Why experts keep failing us—and how to know when not to trust them can be purchased at

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