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Bullshidology 101

By July 17, 2020May 4th, 2022Experts
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Anyone else remember running through the DDT cloud from the mosquito man’s truck?

Like many, I get quite a few invitations to connect on  LinkedIn. Just last week, I got one from a guy whose profile headline is, “A preeminent expert in leadership development through inclusion.”

Wow! Not just any old expert, but a “preeminent expert” thinks a LinkedIn connection with me is valuable! I guess I must be a “preeminent expert” also. Or maybe he views me as just a mere expert who could benefit from his superior knowledge. Or maybe he just wants to sell me something. In any case, how could I possibly resist the prestige of being connected with a “preeminent expert?” Or maybe I should wonder if this guy has expert-level skills in “Bullshidology” as opposed to leadership development?

Bullshidology, by the way, is the science concerned with gaining an understanding of the degree to which any given individual’s pronouncements are valid.

Look… I have no idea who this guy is. Never heard of him. Don’t know how much he knows about what. But there’s this thing about the designation “expert.” If somebody tells me that so and so in an expert about some subject, I’ll give that person the benefit of the doubt. I’ll assume the person in question actually does possess a superior level of expertise on said subject.

If, however, someone’s self-description uses the term expert, all sorts of red flags go up and all sorts of bells and whistles go off. I’m immediately alert and suspicious. I classify people like that as insecure and/or overly impressed with themselves. I try to leave open the possibility that they actually do possess some expertise, but from the get-go I’m taking everything they say – everything – with a grain of salt.

I’m reminded of a truism familiar to us all. “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” In other words, when any of us learns something – anything – we’re always confronted with another question …or two …or three …or ten. I experience this phenomenon all the time. So do you. So does everybody. Here’s a modified version of that old saying… “The more expert I become, the more I realize how un-expert I am.”

A more fun version of this same notion is contained in two companion statements. “Specialists learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing;” and “Generalists learn less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.”

The point is, “expert” is an ambiguous term. An example… I played some high school basketball. 25 years later, I became coach of my daughter’s 4th grade team. Those kids thought I was a basketball expert. Ha! Had I waited until she was in high school, her 11th grade teammates would have instantaneously realized that as a basketball coach, I’m a fraud.

Which leads to a deeper point. It’s NOT a question if one is or is not an expert. It’s not a binary thing. Expertise regarding any given topic falls along a spectrum. Let’s continue the basketball example. On a scale of 1 to 10, let’s say I have “Level 2” basketball coach expertise.  I’m good for the 4th and 5th graders. For a 6th grade team? Ahhhhhh… Not so much.

Somebody out there is THE most expert basketball coach alive. That person has “Level 10” basketball coach skills. Literally everyone in the world falls somewhere along that 1 to 10 continuum. Which leads to a still deeper and even more important perspective… continued below

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Most people are average.

Got that? It doesn’t matter what domain we’re talking about. Most basketball coaches have average expertise. Most car mechanics have average expertise. Most politicians, management consultants, piano players, college professors, media pundits, etc., etc., etc. have average expertise.

You’ve heard of the bell curve, right? You remember how we hoped our teachers would grade us “on the curve,” right? Everything falls on a bell curve. Now I won’t drag you through all the mathematical details, and I’ll round off the numbers, but the math unequivocally tells us most people fall into the center section of the bell curve. By definition mathematically, 32% of us are 1 standard deviation above the midpoint, and 32% are 1 standard deviation below the midpoint. Another 13% fall into each of the two sections between 1 and 2 standard deviations above and below the midpoint. The final two groups of 3% each fall beyond 2 standard deviations above and below the midpoint.

It’s easy to grasp by looking at the diagram, and I’ll also state all that in a simpler manner… Only 3% of people are legitimate experts at whatever it is we’re considering. 3%! A very elite group indeed! Only 13% are legitimately “Knowledgeable;” 32% are merely “Above Average;” 32% are “Below Average;” 13% are “Neophytes; and the final 3% are spectacularly incompetent – they’re “Ignorant.”

That brings me back to Bullshidology and basketball.

As a level 2 out of 10 basketball coach, I fall into the Neophyte category. Those 4th grade girls, however, considered me an expert, and compared to them, I was. As I reflect back, I remember a very vocal dad in the bleachers who turned out to be a level 3 – also a Neophyte. Suffice it to say I did not take kindly to his advice. While he did in fact know more than me, he didn’t really know what the hell he was talking about either. Only the 4th graders admired his “superior wisdom.” The 6th graders could easily see we were both frauds.

Let’s look at a different example. The insecticide DDT was invented in the 1940s and was a wildly successful insect control mechanism. It’s use, however, was pretty much totally banned globally in the early 1970s due mostly to the influence of Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring” which was published in 1962. You’ve probably at least heard of that book, but do you know about any of the subsequent DDT research? Did you know that in 2002 the Centers for Disease Control, and in 2006 the World Health Organization both reclassified DDT as “mildly harmful” to humans and declared that it had more health benefits than drawbacks in many situations?

Now as a baby-boomer, I clearly remember chasing the mosquito man’s truck as he drove down my street. All we kids ran in and out of the billowing clouds of DDT-laced smoke. It was fun! None of our parents gave it a second thought. Should that practice be re-started in light of our present-day scientific expertise and knowledge? Of course not. …unless… What if there were a flood followed by a severe outbreak of zillions of malaria-carrying mosquitoes right here in Atlanta’s Old 4th Ward? Hmmmmmmm…

Do you see how this example raises two questions? First, which expert is the real expert – the one whose advice we should follow? And second, given what the real expert says, what do I do?

Identifying the preeminent expert in my DDT example is a lot easier than verifying the preeminent expertise of my new LinkedIn buddy. Should I go with 1962 Rachel Carson, 2002 CDC or 2006 WHO? Relatively speaking, 2006 WHO is the clear winner.

So what does my expert have to say about mosquito trucks? Is it absolutely never, ever again? Well, no… With an outbreak of a zillion mosquitos in a tiny geographic area, deploying a substance that is only “mildly harmful” vs. a massive malaria outbreak strikes me as a good idea. If it were only a half-zillion mosquitos across the whole city of Atlanta though, is it still a good idea? Or what about a quarter-zillion across the entire state of Georgia? Or a 10th of a zillion across the whole country?

Or what about the other expert who says we need to evacuate the area for 6 months, 3 days, 7 hours and 47 minutes? Or that other expert who wants to issue gas masks to all the residents? Or the expert from the pharmaceutical company who wants us all to take his new malaria drug?

Aiiieeeee!!!! Not only does the degree of “expert” fall along a continuum, like my 1-10 scale, it’s also clear that the correct answer to the question of what I should actually do is, “It depends.” It too falls along a continuum of choices. In this case I need still more experts to conduct cost/benefit analyses for mosquito trucks, evacuation procedures, gas masks and malaria drugs, and tell me what’s the best alternative.

I wonder what  “A preeminent expert in leadership development through inclusion” would suggest doing about the mosquito issue. Does expertise in one domain imply expertise in all domains? Or just that one? Or in 7 others? If so, which 7?

Let’s look at yet another aspect of the science of Bullshidology.

You’ve probably heard the old joke about decision-making… “In God we trust, everybody else needs to bring data.” “The numbers don’t lie,” say the data analysts. “Figures lie and liars figure,” say the sceptics. Who’s right? How about we look at an example?

Congress enacted an “Assault Weapons Ban” in 1994 that expired under its 10-year sunset provision. Did that ban reduce shootings? “Absolutely yes,” says Robert Reich, economist and former Secretary of Labor. Analyzing a massive data set compiled by Mother Jones, he calculated that gun massacres dropped 37% after the ban went into effect.

Guess what the National Rifle Association discovered by analyzing the exact same data… They found that “the Federal Assault Weapons Ban had absolutely no impact on mass killings in the U.S.”

“Youngblood,” you say, “How can this be?”

I’ll tell you how. Reich used the terminology “Gun Massacre,” defined as 6 or more people killed in a single incident. Gun massacres, as defined by Reich, did indeed drop by 37%.

The NRA, on the other hand, used the term “Mass Killing” which is the official federal government definition that is enshrined in legislation by act of Congress, as 3 or more people shot and killed in a single incident. Using that definition, the assault weapons ban did indeed have no impact whatever.

So who’s right? Who’s the more expert data analyst? Reich or the guy from the NRA? Or wait a minute… One’s a politician and the other makes his living as a gun rights advocate. Neither of these guys is a legitimate data analysis expert! Might they merely be exercising their Bullshidology skills? Are they merely Bullshidders?

The real lesson here is that the answer to virtually all questions is, “It depends.”

It depends on what answer the expert wants. It depends on what the expert is trying to prove. It depends on what the expert wants other people to believe and think and do. It depends on the expert’s true areas of expertise – and ignorance. It depends on what factors the expert chooses to examine and which to ignore. It depends on the expert’s level of expertise in Bullshidolgy.

I’m your Intentionally Vicarious host Todd Youngblood – Urging you to enhance your knowledge and skills in the field of Bullshidology. Take the fundamental precepts of the science seriously.

  1. True expertise goes infinitely deep. Nobody can ever know everything about anything. You can always learn more.
  2. Expertise is relative. I truly was an expert at coaching 4th grade girls basketball.
  3. Most people are average. Mathematically, 68% of people are average, 13% are neophytes and 3% are utterly ignorant. That leaves only 16% who are knowledgeable and truly expert.
  4. The “facts” cited by the experts change over time. In the 1970s DDT needed to be totally banned from the earth. In 2020 it’s clear that in some situations, it makes perfect sense to use it.
  5. It’s easy to manipulate data to make it prove what you want it to prove.

Remember… The true challenge in making an informed decision is accurately deciding which “expert” or “experts” from which field or fields of study to believe. Somebody please teach me how to do that. I’m too busy having more fun than anyone else I know.

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Thanks for paying attention…

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • James D Roth says:

    Good job. And this is coming from an expert. Back in my early twenties, I was contacted by a Philadelphia lawyer to do a personal property appraisal for a case in Federal District Court. I said, “Why me?”. His reply was that I was an expert witness since he needed the appraisal based on values in Sellersville and I had the largest antiques business in Upper Bucks County. On that basis I did the appraisal. Actually a correct use of the term expert. My appraisal was based on current retail values in my locality totally grounded in experience. I did not and could not predict the future and was not asked to do that. Do I call myself an expert? No. But I have 52 years of experience which allows me to explain how we got to present day values. Oh, by the way. I have never been beaten in an insurance appraisal or courtroom testimony. Only the attorneys call me an expert. Maybe I should raise my rates.

    • FOR SURE raise your rates, Jim! And yes, the scenario you describe IS the legitimate way to define “expert.” SO many bullshidders out there… So little time to call “BULLSHID!” on each of them.

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