The Experts Have Spoken

by Ben Dolnick


You know that little surge of glee you feel when you read this tweet from Ross Douthat?

Or when you look back at that golden oldie from Peggy Noonan about the “vibrations” all humming with the news of an imminent Romney landslide?

In 1984, Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky published a book called The Experts Speak that is basically a five-gallon tank of that particular pleasure. It’s four hundred pages of people being wrong about stuff: military generals in the thirties insisting that Hitler poses no threat; movie executives in the twenties proclaiming talking pictures a fad. There’s no narrative spine, no argument — just five or six spectacularly incorrect quotes per page, covering everything from biology to boxing. The Experts Speak is, to the part of you that delights in identifying the idiocy in others, what Ina Garten cookbooks are to the part of you that delights in lovingly photographed chicken breasts. But it is also, I’ve come to believe, much more than that. Despite its joke-book packaging and the juvenility of its conception, The Experts Speak is among the most psychologically useful books I’ve ever read.

The first thing you discover, when you wade into The Experts Speak, is that wrongness, like food, becomes disturbing when seen in bulk. Fairly quickly, you move on from anonymous British scientists insisting that flying machines are not possible and long-forgotten modeling directors telling Marilyn Monroe that she’d better look for secretarial work and into more troubling territory. Here’s Thomas Edison predicting that radio will be not much more than a novelty. Here’s Einstein declaring nuclear energy unobtainable. History’s roster of morons, you begin to realize, bears a worrisome resemblance to its roster of geniuses. Whomever you happen to rely on for your present stable perch — John Oliver, Elizabeth Kolbert, the Freakonomics guys — you can’t help but begin to feel the chair-legs wobble. Wrongness, now and forever, is an equal-opportunity affliction.

This is the first psychologically useful function of The Experts Speak: it corrodes the notion we, unlike all those billions who had the misfortune of living in the past, might have a handle on the actual truth of things. (This is useful because the truth we think we have a handle on tends to be so unpleasant in the holding.) We are hardwired to our depths to trust our senses, and our senses — particularly the never-ending stream of color commentary provided by our minds — have a distinct miserabilist bias. Imagine, for a second, that climate change turns out to be not such a big deal. I know, I know, but picture it. Maybe, in twenty years, somebody invents a carbon-gobbling machine; maybe some alternative energy source sweeps the globe as thoroughly as cellular service. I’m not saying these things are likely, but that’s the point: the actual course of history has been unlikely, repeatedly. The nineteenth-century experts who feared that Manhattan would soon be three stories deep in horse manure didn’t surround their warnings with wink-emojis. They delivered their forecasts as soberly, and with the same well-reasoned alarm, as Bill McKibben’s latest email blast.

Which isn’t to say we should leave our fridges open and trust the future to sort itself out. But it is to say that we might, with this rich history of inaccuracy in mind, adopt a less helpless relation to our darkest thoughts. Every four years, before a presidential election, I remind myself that, even if my preferred candidate is going to win, there will be points during the campaign in which it will seem as if he or she is in trouble, and I pre-instruct myself not to panic. But then, come August or September, when my preferred candidate actually does find him or herself in trouble, I panic like a cornered chipmunk. We’re good at telling ourselves that we’ll be wrong about things, but we’re not good at remembering that being wrong is — necessarily — a convincing experience.

The Experts Speak, by bludgeoning us with wrongness, chapter after chapter of it (Alfred Nobel thinks that dynamite will result in world peace! Simon & Schuster thinks The Giving Tree is unpublishable!), can act as the reminder of fallibility that our minds so often can’t. And the wrongness train, once boarded, need not stop at global affairs; it can penetrate to the most intimate cores of our lives, those areas about which our minds claim to speak most authoritatively. The Experts Speak can even step in at exactly that point when so many self-help books begin to mumble and trail off: the actual how of it.

Here’s a quick and admittedly sketchy history of psychiatry as I understand it:

Starting with Freud, and continuing for an alarming number of decades afterward, the basic notion was that our thoughts were to be treated essentially as meaningful. OK, so you think your mother never liked you. What do you remember her saying? How did she treat you? How did her mother treat her? Then, starting in the sixties, along came therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, in which you were encouraged instead to get in the ring and fight with your thoughts. You think your mother never liked you? Never? Really? Doesn’t that sound like a bit of an overgeneralization? Aren’t you putting too much faith in your ability to know the contents of another person’s mind? Now, we treat our thoughts even more disrespectfully, like the blather of the overhead TVs at the airport. Rather than fact check every claim, or scrutinize every contributor for bias, we can, with the assurance that most of what’s being broadcast is sensationalistic garbage, proceed toward our designated gate. Any truly important thoughts will have to come and find us.

It’s in implementing this last approach — which I’m convinced is the one that our minds deserve — that The Experts Speak is so useful. Our minds tailor their coverage shamelessly; they turn up the volume, they declare emergencies, they call in panels of experts. We can’t reason with our minds, but we can, by compiling our own inner editions of The Experts Speak, laugh them into submission. “I will never get into college.” — Me, age 17. “I will never be able to touch my toes.” — Me, age 30. “I will never finish this essay.” — Me, two hours ago.

So you should feel glee when someone retweets Bill Kristol proclaiming that Trump will never make it past Iowa — but not the cheap glee of superiority or schadenfreude. You should feel the deep glee of solidarity, of having found a brother in the business of being fooled. You should bask in the reminder that getting it wrong — and wrong, and wrong again — is the only gateway to getting it finally, blissfully, right.