Questioning Experts

Anyone who says, as I did a few times, that the Surge doesn’t seem to be working gets asked some variation of the same question… “Why should I believe you rather than David Petraeus, the top military officer in Iraq?”

Its a fair question. After all, presumably Petraeus has access to more and better information, and as a military guy, on the ground, he has more familiarity and a better feel for what is going on.

But here’s the thing. Some of us pointed out back in January that the Surge wasn’t going to produce results. Now, if you think the Surge is working, that means nothing. But we can go farther back.. Some of us have been pointing out for a while that things were getting worse… while those that were at that time the military commanders in Iraq were saying otherwise. Some of us even expected things to become a mess in Iraq in 2003 based on what we had seen our leaders do in Afghanistan.

So perhaps the relevant question is not… what right do these doubters have to question the wisdom of David Petraues, but rather… why should we take the word of a guy who is saying the same things as the folks who have been wrong all along over the opinion of people who have been right so far? What makes Petraeus different than his predecessors? The administration, and those who have been wrong on everything so far, tell us he is more brilliant than his predecessors. But if they are capable of seeing this difference… why were his predecessors given the job before him? I recognize there are seniority issues, but still? Also, if he is that good, shouldn’t the tasks he was in charge of earlier have borne fruit – shouldn’t the Iraqi military be doing a good job given he was in charge of training them?

Now, someone might ask me… “Well, you consider yourself an expert in a few things. How would you feel if complete amateur questioned you on what you do?”

Well, here’s the thing… I try to play down how much I trade on being an expert. My business cards don’t have the letters “Ph.D.” on them. Anywhere. On some occasions, for some purposes, I have allowed those letters to appear after my name, but I generally avoid it. And I don’t tend to argue based on the fact that I have worked on something for years. (I do try to trade on my past results and what I think I can deliver going forward, which is a bit different.) Sometimes its useful or even necessary for marketing purposes – as shorthand or signal to indicate where the discussion can start – but I’m always suspicious of anyone who argues any point based on their own authority.

Additionally, generally (not always, but generally), one can more easily argue one’s point by being open and transparent and arguing and presenting the data that is available. Those who keep information squirreled away usually have a reason for behaving squirrelly. (E.g., including in one’s data points the “Great Tax Hike of 2005” (y’all remember how triumphantly GW and Tom DeLay were in the signing statement for that one, being all fiscally responsible and rubbing it in on the Dems who so wanted lower tax rates for Paris Hilton?) and the big tax increase in 1982, characterized, as only an increase can be, by a huge drop in the top marginal rate, as well as drops in the bottom marginal rate and the cap gains rate.)

And there’s one more problem sign – does the person admit mistakes. A true expert generally does, and generally does so early. One reason is that a true expert realizes how obvious the outcome is going to be very soon to those who are informed. Another is a true expert in a field got that way by learning, and the only way to learn is to change your opinion when you’re wrong.

So yeah… I’m perfectly comfortable with people arguing with me about topics in which I think I’m an expert and they will readily admit no expertise at all. In fact, I’m used to it. And part of what I have to do, on a daily basis, is to try to make the point I’m making both in a way that makes sense to others who think they’re experts and to those who don’t think they’re experts. I don’t always succeed, of course, but I like to think I do succeed reasonably often when both sides are arguing in good faith. So why should I not be comfortable questioning experts in other fields?