Gene Expression

Expertise & entertainment

Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, has a post up where he notes how bad political “experts” are. Nevertheless, I’m a little confused, isn’t the whole point of political pundits & stock pickers to be entertaining, as opposed to expert? It seems that the premise that the public is rationally consuming expertise is just false.


  1. #1 MattK
    March 27, 2009

    You obviously give the public a lot more credit than I do.

  2. #2 stillwaggon
    March 27, 2009

    I think you mean Jonah Lehrer.

  3. #3 Oran Kelley
    March 27, 2009

    In popular culture studies this is always the trick: just how is this thing consumed? It isn’t always easy to decide.

    This seems to me to be kinda complicated.

    Unlike Biblical literalism, where we can easily surmise that most people who claim to be literalists don’t take the bible literally because they believe and behave contrary to the text.

    With pundits I’m not so sure that they are generally taken as entertainers as opposed to experts because I’m not sure that this distinction is operative for a lot of people. The distinction between entertainer and expert is blurry and the distinction between policy and the distinction between spectacle and polity is blurry.

    For instance, the policies applauded by the people after 9/11, it seems to me were applauded for aesthetic reasons–they appeared to be appropriate narrative developments; not because they had any real-world prospects to deliver desirable outcomes.

    So, yes, pundits are entertainment. But political decision-making is not entirely distinguishable from entertainment.

  4. #4 agnostic
    March 28, 2009

    I think the tendency to believe experts is rational and adaptive. They usually know something you don’t, and that’s useful to your fitness.

    The wrinkle is that there are two types of experts: experts of artifacts and experts of natural kinds. The former are auto mechanics, computer geeks, electricians, etc. The latter are health / nutrition experts, pundits, priests, etc.

    On average, believing in the artifact experts boosts fitness — we learn how to make a proper bow, how to water-proof our roof, etc. On average, believing in the natural kind experts decreases fitness — they don’t know what they’re talking about and have almost always been wrong, even now when they’ve got so much data to draw on to inform their pronouncements.

    Over time, the benefits of learning how to make and build useful shit must have outweighed the costs of gullibility from listening to the priestly caste.

    There’s another wrinkle, too, which shows irrationality — natural kind experts enjoy a superior reputation and material condition, while artifact experts don’t get much props or huge salaries. That’s not what we’d expect if the consumers are making rational valuations of the experts’ “stock” — natural kind experts have very high price-earnings ratios, i.e. are overhyped. And just as with the stock market, their return on investment is a LOT lower than for the artifact experts.

  5. #5 Joshua Zelinsky
    March 28, 2009

    Oran, most of the people who claim to be Biblical literalists really do believe that. They just have little to no idea what is in the text or they have such distorted views of the text that their notion of literalism is hopelessly warped.

  6. #6 Oran Kelley
    March 28, 2009


    Right. I don’t think purported literalists have ironic distance from their text either. Just for them being literalists involves something other than having a thorough familiarity with the text in question or any real strong concern that they are abiding by its words.

    (Biblical literalism generally seems to work like this: I don’t like gays, promiscuity (unless I’m directly involved), hedonism (see above), evolution and a bunch of other stuff. So I repair to my bible, or, preferably, I repair to the easy-to-read works of someone who has already repaired to his bible, and i find divine justification for my predilections and I absolutely refuse to reconsider those predilections because they are sanctioned by the sacred and unalterable word of GOD.)

    All of which means that we, as outside observers, can’t work backwards from the text to their beliefs. We’ve actually gotta ask them, because the source of their beliefs is actually those prejudices, not the bible. A much more compicated situation than the claimed simplicity of literalism.

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