Williams offers a word of caution about experts

Walter Williams reminds readers of his latest column that expert opinion is not synonymous with fact.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a mathematician and scientist. Newton has to be the greatest and most influential scientist who has ever lived. He laid the foundation for classical mechanics, and his genius transformed our understanding of science, particularly in the areas of physics, mathematics and astronomy. What’s not widely known is that Newton spent most of his waking hours on alchemy; his experiments included trying to turn lead into gold. Though he wrote volumes on alchemy, after his death Britain’s Royal Society deemed that they were “not fit to be printed.” …

… The take-home lesson is that experts are notoriously fallible outside of their fields of endeavor — and especially so when making predictions. There tends to be an inverse relationship between a predictor’s level of confidence and the accuracy of his prediction. Irving Fisher, a distinguished Yale University economics professor in 1929, predicted, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Three days later, the stock market crashed. In 1954, Dr. W.C. Heuper of the National Cancer Institute said, “If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one.” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943 allegedly said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” “(Research on the atomic bomb) is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.” That was Adm. William Leahy’s prediction in 1945.

The bottom line is that the fact that a person has academic degrees, honors and status is no reason for us to abandon our tools of critical thinking.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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