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As filmmaker Josh Freed's entertaining new documentary The Trouble with Experts, reminds us, we are all addicted to experts. They tell us what to eat, how to vote, raise our kids, fix our homes, buy our wines, interpret political events and, until recently, choose the right stocks. They're all over the media telling us what to think, because there's just too much information for us to sort out ourselves. So we often cede our own opinions to "them" because, well … they're experts, so they know better than us. Or do they?

In the recent stock meltdown, we discovered that some of our most important experts – our financial gurus - didn't know much at all. So what about all the other experts out there? Does having expertise actually mean you make better decisions than regular people? Or are they just part of a new cult of expertise, an ever-growing "expert industry" that's become our latest new religion?

"We all want wise men to give us the secret truth, the real low-down, the inside dope about things - someone who knows more than we mere mortals know," says writer/director Josh Freed." But the reality is that many so-called experts don't know any more than you or me. In fact, a 20-year study of experts shows they're only right about half the time."

There are similar findings from other "experts on experts" we meet in the film, like Berkeley Psychology Professor Phillip Tetlock, Christopher Cerf (co-founder of the Institute of Expertology) and New Yorker science writer David Freedman (who's authored a new book called "WRONG") . Among their findings – the more famous the forecaster, the more overblown the forecasts, the more wrong they are.  

The documentary features some astonishing stories of experts in the wrong.  We meet Dutch artist John Myatt who used house paint and KY jelly to forge the works of Great Masters.  He managed to fool top art critics and museums for 8 years before he was finally caught.  Then there are the wine experts who can't even distinguish white wine from red and political experts whose predictions were only a tiny bit better than random guesses - the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.   

Appearing on TV makes experts even more wrong, say Philip Tetlock and Christopher Cerf.  "Show producers don't want us to sit there listening to an expert thinking, 'I could have said that myself.' They want certainty, clarity and drama and they call on 'experts' who see things in black and white - or are happy to exaggerate their positions to sound more certain and entertaining. Adds Tetlock: "The experts who are most often accurate in our studies are cautious, quiet and somewhat more boring. Try selling that to a TV producer."

So how do you become an expert anyway?  We pay a visit to Expert School, where they claim they can turn anyone into an expert in two days – yes, even YOU.

The Trouble with Expertsis written & directed by Josh Freed and produced by Freed and Janet Torge for Josh Freed Productions in association with the CBC.

 

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