Columns

"A Credit Rating for Experts," Human Behavior, Vol. 3, No. 7 (July, 1974), p. 10.


On February 11, 1971 the date is important Dr. Philip H. Abelson, editor of Science, explained to a seminar of the faculty of Columbia University, "The social importance of energy and, more specifically, one energy source petroleum has made the technological and social well-being of industrial nations, especially western Europe and Japan, vulnerable to political manipulation by some otherwise unimportant Middle Eastern states." He continued to explain that the West would be politically weak if the Arabs ever used their oil power, and suggested that the situation "appeared to presage a crash program to develop alternative energy sources." (Abelson expressed similar ideas even earlier, in an editorial in Science, September 25, 1970.) The reaction to the Abelson presentation ranged from a polite disbelief to a fairly outright remark about "being another alarmist."

The main moral of this brief recollection is not that Abelson has proven to be a scientist of unusual foresight. Rather, it is that in all the millions of words printed in the recent months about the energy crisis in the public press, professional publications and in the Congressional Record, there was no indication that Abelson was one of the very few who did predict the energy crisis, and that he identified, in time, the need to prepare for it by the appropriate means. Instead, we waited until we were hit and then engaged in a semihysterical look for quick answers in our typical helter-skelter manner.

The issue runs much deeper than giving their due to Abelson and other experts who prove to be wise. A congressional medal for futurologists who can read the future would take care of this matter. (I assure you, no great mint would be necessary.) The real issue is that society, the policy makers, the government, the corporations, the labor unions, the political parties and the public must often rely on specialists. It is impossible, almost by definition, for a nonspecialist to evaluate the counsel specialists give him. There are at any point in time experts who will argue from the depth of their discipline for and against whatever public policy is being examined, from desalting the oceans to melting the polar icecaps, from space bombers to test-tube babies.

As a result, all too often specialists are chosen not according to their merit but according to their bedside manner ("he is easy to get along with"); ability to attract a crowd ("his testimony is sure to make a splash"); old school tie ("he was a terrific teacher at Yale"); party or factional affiliation (there are Humphrey, Ribicoff, Kennedy, Mondale and other welfare experts); and other irrelevant criteria. No wonder the resulting policy is so often so mindless, behind the times, partisan and nonexpert. As examples, look at almost any domestic policy, from the total war on crime to the campaign against poverty. For a current case, see our energy "policy."

On less frequent occasions, experts are sought for their expertise. In such instances, policy makers who keep no systematic track record of past performance often turn to the establishmentarian academies to select the experts to be called. The academies' choices, while much superior to those selection mechanisms just depicted, tend to focus on experts who express the "collective wisdom of the field" at the time, or crowned statesmen of the field, frequently excluding precisely those mavericks who can see further than most or are able to formulate truly novel ideas and insights.

The nation might thus benefit greatly from a national registry for experts where all predictions will be listed. The mere existence of such a central storage bank where one could get all the past statements, forecasts and prophecies of specialists should screen out quite a few from future jobs. After all, if you can get such a "poop sheet" on the performance of every horse that runs on a racetrack, why not on people who advise the policy makers? Second, monthly computer ratings could be issued to all comers, reviewing the batting average of all those claiming to foresee future trends. Such a registry would single out not only those who are right once in a while (since if one makes enough predictions, one cannot miss them all), but those who have a consistently higher batting average, which hopefully will make it harder for policy makers to rely on their favorites and insure that both they and the media turn to the proven experts for forecasts.

Frankly, the suggestion to create such a registry for experts is only half-serious, The problem really is chiefly not with the inability to find out who is reliable and who is unwise but in the unwillingness of the policy makers to heed wiser experts. (The registry would, however, make it much more visible that policy makers typically choose the affable or accommodating types over the hard-nosed specialists.) Also, many predictions are conditional, containing various "catches," which would make scoring of the results difficult, if not impossible. But, in all seriousness, we must find some way to increase the reliance on the true specialist, however unpalatable the medicine. At stake, to reiterate, is not social justice for the experts, but a more effective screening for expert advice, better filtering of the knowledge policy makers and citizens rely upon to form their judgments. Certainly, we could use more reliable counsel. Why not ask the Abelsons how to set up better mechanisms for mobilization and evaluation of scientific advice?

Amitai Etzioni is professor of sociology at Columbia University and Director of the Center for Policy Research.

 

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