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Cassandra: In my expert opinion..

Byline: Cassandra

IT was something on one of those embarrassingly bad BBC local news programmes last week that did it.

The story being given the once-over-lightly treatment was about people eating more ready-meals than they used to.

We heard three passers-by say, yes, they occasionally eat a packet dinner. Which pretty much proved the case for me. But before you could say microwave, it was over to - you guessed it - "a psychologist".

Without cracking so much as a smirk, Dr Something-or-Other gave her considered, academic opinion that the underlying reason for people eating ready-meals was that they "lack energy" after a hard day's work.

"Very interesting, that," commented my wife. "If only you had that kind of brilliant, analytical mind, you, too, could get paid by the BBC to give your opinions on the news."

"True," I said, "but I'm not an expert on anything, am I? I mean, what would I have said if the BBC had asked if I could talk about why people eat ready-meals? That they're quite nice and convenient? Hardly up to that psychologist's level of intellectual rigour, is it?"

Then I thought a bit more and realised, damn it, I do have a local TV-news-friendly area of expertise. I am perfectly qualified, after 20-odd years writing for newspapers, to be a leading expert on experts. I am now willing, for a fee, to give an expert assessment of any expert on anything from Newsnight to Newsround. This is how it would go.

Presenter: "We asked psychologist Professor Barry Obvious, of the University of Epping, why he thought people like to put their clothes in wardrobes."

Expert: "Well, psychologists believe this goes back to a primal need human beings have not to leave their clothes on the floor."

Presenter: "Could Professor Obvious be on to something there? Next, we asked this expert on experts what he thought of Professor Obvious's argument..."

Me: "What people have to understand is that Professor Obvious is one of the greatest minds today studying clothing storage..."

Presenter: "So there we have it."

Me: "No, we don't. I was going on to say that he is also a complete a**e who's never been right about anything in his life. You'd be better off guessing yourself."

I don't imagine the BBC will ever take me up on my offer to be a pundit's pundit but there is real science behind it. I read a book recently on the disastrous history of expert predictions of the future. It showed - rather expertly - how useless experts are.

All of them, from the Roman engineering expert Sextus Julius Frontinus, who said 2,000 years ago that everything useful had already been invented, to Astronomer Royal Sir Harold Spencer Jones, who, in 1957, dismissed the idea of space flight as "bunk" - a fortnight before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1.

And let's not forget climate experts, who are still fighting over whether global-warming is going to make Britain hotter or colder. What came out of the book was that the best expert predictors of the future have been people who were experts on nothing in particular - writers, film-makers, even journalists.

A very clever bloke once told me one of those things that stick in your mind. He said that intelligent people are those who know what they know. But very intelligent people are those who know what they don't know.

The thing I know for certain about experts is that they have a slightly better idea of what they don't know than you or I do.

The rest of their art is sheer guesswork. Pay attention to what they say, by all means. But it's not necessarily right.
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 8, 2003
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