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04 February 2008

Do As I Say! (...Not What I Do)

Parents know this dichotomy well. "Yeah, me being insolent with MY parents doesn't mean you can be insolent to ME...you little whippersnapper!!"

Of course somewhere in our guidance, admonishments, platitudes and endorsements we hope is the framework for our children to also develop that oh-so-critical perspective. As they mature, they will need to know the difference between a parent's gospel (amen!) and, say, a monster's overture ("come with me where you'll be safe"). And so begins the long and windy road of debunking the undeserved experts in our lives.


"Super Bowl predictions: Our experts weigh in"...

...touted the headline. Even the passive follower probably knows that the New England Patriots were heavily favored to win over the 'hapless' New York Giants in Super Bowl 42. Favored by whom, you ask? Well, those "Experts", of course. And most were standing in line to shout their predictions from the roof tops. I can't imagine how much the total dollar amount was, but supposedly a $100 bet for the Giants to win paid $350. The experts at sports books across the globe took a bath in paying off their losses...


Build it and they will ... sue

In 2004, a fancy shmancy building housing some of our countries sharpest minds opened on the campus of MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The $300 Million design and construction project called the Stata Building was sophisticated, like the work within its walls, and was supposed to be the pinnacle of design accomplishment. MIT hired a famous and, uh, expert, architect to design the one of a kind structure. Oh, the problem though, was that the building was supposed to be finished in 2000 for 'only' $100 Million. Seems that the building leaks, doesn't have any straight walls (to set up book shelves to hold those annoying books or to hang pictures) and is hopelessly flawed, still. At its core, the architect was treated a little too much like a celebrity expert and less like a hired contractor. Result: the usual and customary procedures to prevent such preventable calamities were overlooked. In 2008, it is still undergoing repair and the expert is being litigated into oblivion.


Bombs Away

During World War II, folks at the Manhattan Project were developing an Atomic Warhead. In secrecy. When Truman took over the US presidency, he decided to stop the war with a decisive victory. After being briefed on the power and destructive of deploying an atom bomb, he created a SDTS panel (Super Duper Top Secret, in case you don't have 'tweens) to assess whether this new 'tool' would provide the, uh, catalyst needed for the Japanese to consider giving up. Since the bomb had never been deployed before, there was no direct or compelling evidence that the bomb could be dropped from a plane and do anything but go "thud" with the same anti-climatic hubris as an empty Volkswagen being pushed off the top of a parking garage into a field below. Military strategists thought that we would bare our ass and fail to produce much more than a laugh from the Japanese combatants. An Admiral Leahy, one of the chosen few aware of the deliberations, was one of the experts consulted...and his feelings speak for themselves.


"This is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives."
Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project

President Truman ordered two of the cataclysmic bombs dropped anyway. Leahy the explosives expert was dead wrong.....and over 200,000 Japanese were dead and dying. The Japanese Empire surrendered less than a week later.


Legal Eagle

Experts come in many shapes, sizes, smells and sounds. In a courtroom, an Expert is a legally defined entity. Since 1993, the Daubert standard has been in effect which requires a thorough examination of a testimony's reliability and relevancy before being allowed to be heard and characterized as expert in nature. Lawyers being the sharp tacks that they are were tired of opposing counsel presenting people like ol' Cousin Larry as a blood spatter expert just because he hunted squirrels with a 20 gauge shotgun.

Being on the receiving end of a Daubert examination can be daunting. Most people that have done so will seldom refer to themselves as an expert under less formal circumstances or beyond the scope of their legally defined rubric. In a courtroom: expert = target.

***

Most people when they come to you for advice, come to have their own opinions strengthened, not corrected.
Josh Billings

So are experts needed? Sure. Are they needed to be deified or made into celebrities in the process? Nope. And to see this belief in practice, look no farther than the new era of MIT students who are surely paying higher tuition, etc. to offset the increased costs of their university's, uh, indulgence ...

Have any colossal Expert fumbles you want to share?

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