Wrong: Why experts* keep failing us--and how to know when not to trust them *Scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, ... consultants, health officials and more Hardcover – 10 Jun 2010
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PRAISE FOR "WRONG":
"An engaging polemic against the neat-police who hold so much sway over our lives." -- The Wall Street Journal
PRAISE FOR "A PERFECT MESS":
"An engaging polemic against the neat-police who hold so much sway over our lives." -- The Wall Street Journal
"An expos of the multiple ways that society's so-called experts let us down, if not outright betray us. It's a chunk of spicy populist outrage, and it can be a hoot....It's news you can use."-- New York Times "Dwight Garner "
"An expose of the multiple ways that society's so-called experts let us down, if not outright betray us. It's a chunk of spicy populist outrage, and it can be a hoot....It's news you can use." Dwight Garner, "New York Times""
We are, as Mr. Freedman puts it, living in an age of "punctuated wrongness," usually misled, occasionally enlightened. His goal is a broad account of this phenomenon, how it takes shape through specific problems in measurement, how it spreads through the general idiocy of crowds, and how we might identify and avoid it. Bravo!...[Mr. Freedman] turns to the right kind of experts to articulate general principles-biostatisticians, for example, who can see deeper than the average scientist into the way the data are gathered, analyzed and screwed up...What makes "Wrong" so right-it being as good as any general account of the fragility of what we take as expert knowledge-is that it raises the right questions." Trevor Butterworth, "Wall Street Journal""
"Mind-bending...[A] compelling case that the majority of people frequently recognized as experts...base their findings on flawed information more often than not....readers of Freedman's evidence might mitigate their unwarranted trust in the "experts" who so often offer sound bites on the morning television news-entertainment programs as well as the "experts" promoted by Oprah, Dr. Phil and others of that ilk." Steve Weinberg, "St. Louis Post-Dispatch""
"This is by far one of the most interesting non-fiction books to have come out in recent times. David H. Freedman reveals why and how a lot-if not all-expert advice is either misleading, manipulated as to mislead, or just plain wrong. Freedman, a journalist by profession, pierces through the shell of intellectual confidence in studies-scientific or otherwise-and exposes 'expert advice', 'studies reveal' and 'survey says' as false catch-phrases designed to fool people into believing that we humans know more about the world around us than we actually do." Amir Hafizi, "The Malay Mail""
"A revealing look at the fallibility of "experts," and tips on how to glean facts from the mass of published misinformation...Informative and engaging, if not groundbreaking news to more cynical readers." "Kirkus Reviews""
PRAISE FOR "A PERFECT MESS"
"An engaging polemic against the neat-police who hold so much sway over our lives." ""The Wall Street Journal"""
"Forcefully argued, focusing on the point where error shades into deceit..."Wrong" makes a powerful case for the prevalence of scientific ineptitude."
Michael Washburn, "Washington Post""
An eye-opening exploration of why experts are constantly misleading us - and what we can do about it --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
Unfortunately I would assume that the topic itself limits the appeal of the extremely important message - not all advice, just because it is labelled expert, should be trusted - most people are unlikely to want to read ~250 pages on the various failings of expertise or the system it is arrived at and communicated.
At the same time, for a hobby sceptic, someone with a research background, or an expert (as long as they are able to recognise their own limitations and shrug them off) this is a fairly amusing book, with plenty of anecdotes, stories and real life examples of failure, as well as a pretty convincingly argued case, why such failure occurs.
It is also a book I would warmly recommend to any business executive, medical professional and most certainly every journalist, so that they at least choose or plug the 'wonder cure du jour' with a guilty conscience (one would hope).Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Where WRONG comes up a bit short is on solutions -- how to tell questionable advice from the trustworthy kind. I wondered why a book that's so good at describing the problem couldn't muster a few more creative answers toward the end.
Freedman might have made a stronger case by weaving in some of the things that experts do "right." The contrast would have better highlighted their true failures while also helping readers know when to trust expert advice and when to question it. And that's critical if you want to use the info he shares to make better choices. Instead, Freedman suggests we can't trust most experts most of the time. That's a bit misleading and not as helpful as it could be in a world where most of us rely pretty heavily on experts for a range of basic services.
The research I've seen suggests the need to be especially wary when experts weigh in on topics outside their comfort zones or where answers to problems are unknown. By contrast, experts do better than non-experts on problems that have known solutions. There are always exceptions but this makes sense in general. For example, plumbers are experts who have seen thousands of drain clogs and know how to treat. Mechanics have a wealth of experience diagnosing common car problems. And ditto for many of the common problems a family doctor encounters or a tax accountant sees. Do these experts make mistakes? Sure. But, compared to the rest of us, they tend to do pretty well on problems in their fields that are well understood. Freedman has to know this but doesn't say it clearly, so readers may easily come away thinking otherwise.
Of course, unscrupulous people from doctors to auto-mechanics can also knowingly mislead us. Freedman addresses ethics in several places but tends to lump together experts who give us wrong info on purpose with those who do it by accident or ineptitude. The bad advice may look similar in these cases, but ethical wrongs spring from different problems and point to different solutions. Again, it would have made for a more compelling conclusion if Freedman had pushed harder on possible solutions here and in related areas. Maybe he wanted to do more but just ran out of time before publication. Overall, a good analysis but the payoff & solutions could have been more constructive.
The book is Freedman's investigation and exploration of the reasons behind the why these studies are wrong. The book takes the reader on a systematic investigation of the forces that lead to the publication of inaccurate studies from the need to simplify study finding, the bias of publishing only positive findings, to the social pressures that suppress whistleblowers. Freedman paints a comprehensive picture of the weakeness of the scientific research, including research conducted by Nobel Laureates.
Freedman also takes a look at business research and business books which suffer from these same weaknesses and biases. He points out the structural weakness of the two major basis of business books - that today's `winners' offer immutable lessons for everyone else, or that companies need radical new approaches to address new issues. That discussion, in Chapter 6, should be required reading for every business guru and person offering advice. Readers should also go back to Clayton Christensen's HBR article Why Hard-Nosed Executives Should Care About Management Theory that was published in September 2003 to round out their understanding of business research.
Freedman provides practical advice on characteristics of different types of advice. Below is a summary of the statements to give you an idea of how comprehensive the book is, each point is discussed in detail in the last chapter and this cements the value of the book for a researcher or those who make decisions based on research.
Characteristics of less trustworthy advice include:
- Advice that is simplistic, universal, and definitive
- Advice that is supported by only a single study, or many small or less careful ones, or animal studies.
- Advice that is groundbreaking
- Advice that is pushed by people or organizations that stands to benefit from its acceptance.
- Advice that is geared to preventing future occurrences of a prominent recent failure or crisis.
Characteristics of expert advice we should ignore:
- Advice that is mildly resonant
- Advice that is provocative
- Advice that gets a lot of positive attention
- Advice that other experts embrace
- Advice that appears in a prestigious journal
- Advice that is supported by a big, rigorous study
- Advice backed by experts that boast impressive credentials
Characteristics of more trustworthy expert advice
- Advice that does not trip other alarms
- Advice that is a negative finding
- Advice that is heavy on qualifying statements
- Advice that is candid about reputational evidence
- Advice tat provide some context for research
- Advice that provides perspective
- Advice that includes candid, blunt comments
There are to many points here to repeat in this review, but this is the most valuable part of the book and one of the reasons I am recommending the book - particularly for those who engage in research or are making decisions based on research they either commission or review.
Wrong offers a comprehensive view of different types of studies from medical, business, public policy, etc. This gives the book broad appeal and the careful reader insight into the overall modern research process.
The discussion on the wisdom of crowds (Chapter 4 - the Idiocy of Crowds) is perhaps one of the better responses to the current craze of social media. This book is definitely worth the read.
The book offers numerous examples, predominantly of medical studies, which the reader can remember hearing about. The South Korean scientist cloning human stem cells, the debate about the connection between red wine and health are among the flawed science and study Mr. Freedman uses to support his analysis.
The book is blunt and direct and the author calls out people by name and points out the weakeness of their past work.
The author gives you direct references to other skeptical scientists and people who have the job of verifying studies and assuring the quality of research. This has led me to their work, something I never would have found on my own.
This book is not for everyone and while its premise, that many scientific studies are based on poor research, biased, or just plan wrong will have popular appear, the book is not own written for the mainstream. People who do research or make decisions based on research or give advice will get the most out of this book. That is something I do and I found the book very powerful.
The book occasionally drifts into areas and alleys that seem to be more for the author's benefit than the readers. The middle chapters particularly go into detail on things that I did not find particularly interesting. This required me to work my way through chapters five, seven and eight which I found a bit heavy and indirect.
The book has a strong bias and purpose in pointing out the weaknesses and outright failures of research and the research process. The readers have to remind themselves that this is a book about an issue rather than research on the research process. If you know the bias, then you can get a lot out of this book.
Freedman certainly has a great deal of evidence to draw from. Consider the 2008 economic collapse and how few predicted it. Consider the confusions in regard to medical treatments such as women's taking 'hormones'at menopause, or men undergoing PSE test as indicator for prostate cancer. Consider the contradictory advice given all the time by various experts on almost every subject.
There is no doubt that there is a lot of wrong prediction and prescription out there.
But what fields are specially prone to it? And where are experts most reliable?
To his credit Freedman saying that he may be wrong at the end of the book gives eleven rules for testing what any given expert says.
There is a great deal one can learn from this book. I would only say that I believe in making his case the author tends to neglect the true other side, and that is the way 'experts' are in some areas more right than wrong. I have a personal physician who is not a genius or distinguished. He is an ordinary family physician. But in tens of incidences of various illnesses through the years he has been almost always right. He has used his expert knowledge to help me many many times. He is almost always right. I suspect most of us have in various areas 'experts' we do trust. ( I would make an exception in this day and age of financial advisors. My experience with them is almost the opposite of that with my personal physicians. They have been , thanks also to my own stupidity, of no great help.) But of course I am only talking about one little case my own.
To get back to the book. I believe it is an important one. And there is a great deal to be learned from it. I highly recommend it.
Science doesn't claim to be right; it is a process by which incorrect answers can be discarded. Science has progresses as much as it has, and provided what it has to us, not because it is necessarily right, but because, unlike other common ways of thinking, it allows us to move on from conclusions that are clearly wrong. The scientific method was designed with precisely this understanding: that most answers that we will come up with will be wrong. Studies, those things that journalists love to cite and paraphrase, are not intended to be THE FINAL ANSWER--they are working answers, or a way of working toward an answer. Most scientists not only understand this on an abstract level, but are viscerally aware of it; it shapes their thinking (or at least it should) about every published paper they read. Scientists understand that all conclusions published in all papers are tentative, and they understand that a study is only a model or simulation of the real world and may therefore not present an outcome or conclusion that accurately represents the real world. Yes, some excited moron enamored with his own research may exaggerate the strength and meaning of his conclusions. Especially when prodded by a journalist to do so. (Although far more often the exaggeration is injected by the journalist.)But this is not how science as a whole works. Half or more of Freedman's book, then, is wasted arguing a point that is elementary and obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of the scientific method, and that he, apparently, is shamefully unaware of.
He didn't focus on the real cause of "expert failure" in the realm of science, because he IS that problem: namely, that journalists create most of these public misconceptions of fact by incorrectly representing the work of scientists. It's not only that they often misrepresent the conclusions of a particular study or what those conclusions mean. It's not only that they remove the vitally important language of tentativity that characterizes scientific writing, changing their write-up to display a tone of certitude that the original never contained simply to increase their work's wow factor for the public. It is also, more deeply and more importantly, that they entirely and consistently misrepresent what it means for a conclusion to be supported by data and published at all. If he wrote this book to help the public understand how to interpret scientific results, he failed miserably because he never made this most vital point. I suspect this failure was because 1) He didn't really understand it himself, and 2) Journalism IS the art of spin; it would have undermined the attractiveness of his book to be reasonable.
Further, although Freedman occasionally distinguished between different types of expertise, he generally conflated some fundamentally different types of information suppliers under the term "expert." These types of fact suppliers includes scientists, advertisers, journalists, self-promoting gurus, and idealogues. Each of these types of information suppliers is so fundamentally different that treating them all as "experts" serves to muddle rather than improve a reader's ability to assess information.
Advertisers, idealogues, and self-promoters have the objective of financial gain and therefore cannot generally be trusted. Journalists need to shape facts into news or stories, which are a form of information repackaged as entertainment that is inherently unreliable. These information suppliers need to be assessed and understood differently.
An expert is someone who dedicates a substantial portion of his or her life to learning about and understanding a particular topic. Not a few months, or even a few years. The better part of a working lifetime, or at least a decade or preferably decades. Another huge problem with expertise is that, in order to make a stopry more convincing or interesting, journalists or other people in the entertainment industry will elevate a non-expert, usually another journalist, to the status of "expert" when such a label is totally inappropriate. As cases in point, on public radio I recently heard a journalist who wrote a book on fruit presented as an "expert" but he didn't know what a quince was when a caller called; another supposedly expert journalist who wrote a book on honey didn't even know what sugar honey was composed of (glucose) or have any idea on how it was physiologically produced.
Many of the author's points are important, thoughtful, and well-made, but this content could have been thoroughly addressed in a medium to long magazine article; in no way did it warrant a book. Instead he went on and on with irrelevant or poorly presented examples that demonstrated nothing in particular. For example, he cites, as an example of confusing and contradictory expert opinion, the theories that asthma is caused by sterile environments in childhood and environmental pollution. These ideas are in no way contradictory or exclusive; the only confusion is that introduced by his simplification of the topic for the sake of producing catchy sentences that speciously sound perceptive.
The information that Freedman gives us to help us assess expert advice is almost useless and totally, and astoundingly, misses most of the most important points. If anyone cares, here is what they are:
1) Look for real experts. Advertisers, idealogues, and journalists are not real experts and should not be trusted to provide information. Journalists are better than the first two, but if at all possible a primary source or true expert should be consulted. Freedman confuses these categories; for example, he seems to think of economists as scientists when they are not. Economists are idealogues who theorize within an artificial mathematical world that they create to support their ideas; economics as practiced is not constrained by nor does it adhere to the scientific method. By conflating idealogues, advertisers, and such with real expertise, Freedman is able to display the inherent shortcomings of one group and let it by juxtaposition and association discolor our view of the other. This is a disservice to our understanding of the issue he purports to address.
2) In reading any published or unpublished study, assess the methods used to produce data, the strength of the data, and perhaps most importantly, the logical connection between the data and the author's conclusion. I know this is work, but it is the only way. And any intelligent person who reads a few studies will quickly begin to see that the conclusions are often illogical, the data sparse or weak, or the methods ridiculous. Even journalists almost nnever do this, and I find it telling that Freedman never once in the book dissects a published study, or directly critiques one. This tells me that he has only researched this topic skin-deep, as beautiful and illustrative examples of poor studies are remarkably easy to find.
3) Realize that published conclusions supported by data (ie, studies) are not facts; they are just part of the process of science.
So, in short, I like the author's point, but dislike the way he made it and the misunderstandings he obfuscated it with, and the way he failed to clarify it. But he did what journalists do: they sell words, not information.