Monday, November 03, 2008

Are 90 Percent of Experts Crackpots?

My laptop computer's hard drive just stopped driving Sunday evening. Fortunately I'm a fanatic about data back-ups, and had faith that the Apple geniuses would get me up and running on Monday. So on to the local mall on Monday morning.

As I waited for laptop to be repaired, I did something I so rarely get a chance to do these days: browse a brick-n-mortar bookstore. The B&N is just down the mall from the Apple Store, I figured it was a good place to kill an hour. Before online shopping I haunted bookstores, and I looked forward to reliving my old relaxing pastime.

One new book caught my eye (and I've seen it also online). The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture and our values, by Andrew Keen. I admired the yellow and blue cover as well as the typography, and my eye wandered away.

I have not read this book, nor do I intend to.

I recall a time when experts in law enforcement told women that if faced with assault they should not fight back or they'd "get hurt worse." We now know this is untrue. How did we find out it's untrue? Other experts did the research, prompted and motivated by the wave of amateurs (those feminists) who were sure that women had options other than quiver in submission. [For those of you interested, a good place to begin reading is Pauline Bart's work.]

Another example, before my time. Used to be conventional wisdom in the medical establishment (late 1800s through early 1900s) that exercise would damage a woman's reproductive capacity. Never mind that lower class and immigrant women worked at hard labor, and their reproductive capacity didn't seem diminished (which worried members of elite society at that time). Some of my suffragette foremothers fixated on learning to ride a bicycle. Francis Willard, for instance, learned to ride at the age of 53, and marveled at her freedom and power. Of course, current conventional wisdom is that, save for very extreme (and rare) training, exercise is GOOD for women.

Battered women's shelters and sexual assault relief agencies are now managed by professionals mostly, and rely on government funding and grants. But in the 1970s ad 1980s, when they were just emerging, they were grassroots organizations fueled by dedicated volunteers (amateurs all), often at odds with the legal justice system. Those women saw a need, and worked to assauage it.

When I was a young adult, Sturgeon's Law was "Da Rule." Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction writer, was renown for saying "90 percent of everything is crap" in response to literary critics' attacks on science fiction. Sturgeon's point was that if you intended to denigrate a specific genre you'd specifically focus on the worst instances and would of course find plenty of ammunition.

No doubt there's lots of blogs, videos and sites along the Information Superhighway. I take as a given that 90% such internet diversions are crap. However, I'm not so inclined to give the average "expert" much more credit.

Experts are also human, have their own perspectives and prejudices and peccadillos. And often their own interests. Before relying on an expert, do check into not only their credentials but their stake in your well-being.

Fortunately, my laptop's hard drive was readily replaced, and I was on my way with a few new books, though not Keen's. The experts at the Apple Store did their job well, and I'm likely to return. Steve Jobs was once an amateur, bucking the then conventional wisdom on home and business computers. Oftimes it takes that "amateur" or outsider perspective to create that quantum leap.

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