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  • It's Monday morning.

  • In Washington,

  • the president of the United States

  • is sitting in the Oval Office,

  • assessing whether or not

  • to strike Al Qaeda

  • in Yemen.

  • At Number 10 Downing Street,

  • David Cameron is trying to work out

  • whether to cut more public sector jobs

  • in order to stave off a double-dip recession.

  • In Madrid, Maria Gonzalez

  • is standing at the door,

  • listening to her baby crying and crying,

  • trying to work out whether she should let it cry

  • until it falls asleep

  • or pick it up and hold it.

  • And I am sitting by my father's bedside in hospital,

  • trying to work out

  • whether I should let him drink

  • the one-and-a-half-liter bottle of water

  • that his doctors just came in and said,

  • "You must make him drink today," --

  • my father's been nil by mouth for a week --

  • or whether, by giving him this bottle,

  • I might actually kill him.

  • We face momentous decisions

  • with important consequences

  • throughout our lives,

  • and we have strategies for dealing with these decisions.

  • We talk things over with our friends,

  • we scour the Internet,

  • we search through books.

  • But still,

  • even in this age

  • of Google and TripAdvisor

  • and Amazon Recommends,

  • it's still experts

  • that we rely upon most --

  • especially when the stakes are high

  • and the decision really matters.

  • Because in a world of data deluge

  • and extreme complexity,

  • we believe that experts

  • are more able to process information than we can --

  • that they are able to come to better conclusions

  • than we could come to on our own.

  • And in an age

  • that is sometimes nowadays frightening

  • or confusing,

  • we feel reassured

  • by the almost parental-like authority

  • of experts

  • who tell us so clearly what it is

  • we can and cannot do.

  • But I believe

  • that this is a big problem,

  • a problem with potentially dangerous consequences

  • for us as a society,

  • as a culture

  • and as individuals.

  • It's not that experts

  • have not massively contributed to the world --

  • of course they have.

  • The problem lies with us:

  • we've become addicted to experts.

  • We've become addicted to their certainty,

  • their assuredness,

  • their definitiveness,

  • and in the process,

  • we have ceded our responsibility,

  • substituting our intellect

  • and our intelligence

  • for their supposed words of wisdom.

  • We've surrendered our power,

  • trading off our discomfort

  • with uncertainty

  • for the illusion of certainty

  • that they provide.

  • This is no exaggeration.

  • In a recent experiment,

  • a group of adults

  • had their brains scanned in an MRI machine

  • as they were listening to experts speak.

  • The results were quite extraordinary.

  • As they listened to the experts' voices,

  • the independent decision-making parts of their brains

  • switched off.

  • It literally flat-lined.

  • And they listened to whatever the experts said

  • and took their advice, however right or wrong.

  • But experts do get things wrong.

  • Did you know that studies show

  • that doctors misdiagnose

  • four times out of 10?

  • Did you know

  • that if you file your tax returns yourself,

  • you're statistically more likely

  • to be filing them correctly

  • than if you get a tax adviser

  • to do it for you?

  • And then there's, of course, the example

  • that we're all too aware of:

  • financial experts

  • getting it so wrong

  • that we're living through the worst recession

  • since the 1930s.

  • For the sake of our health,

  • our wealth

  • and our collective security,

  • it's imperative that we keep

  • the independent decision-making parts of our brains

  • switched on.

  • And I'm saying this as an economist

  • who, over the past few years,

  • has focused my research

  • on what it is we think

  • and who it is we trust and why,

  • but also --

  • and I'm aware of the irony here --

  • as an expert myself,

  • as a professor,

  • as somebody who advises prime ministers,

  • heads of big companies,

  • international organizations,

  • but an expert who believes

  • that the role of experts needs to change,

  • that we need to become more open-minded,

  • more democratic

  • and be more open

  • to people rebelling against

  • our points of view.

  • So in order to help you understand

  • where I'm coming from,

  • let me bring you into my world,

  • the world of experts.

  • Now there are, of course, exceptions,

  • wonderful, civilization-enhancing exceptions.

  • But what my research has shown me

  • is that experts tend on the whole

  • to form very rigid camps,

  • that within these camps,

  • a dominant perspective emerges

  • that often silences opposition,

  • that experts move with the prevailing winds,

  • often hero-worshipping

  • their own gurus.

  • Alan Greenspan's proclamations

  • that the years of economic growth

  • would go on and on,

  • not challenged by his peers,

  • until after the crisis, of course.

  • You see,

  • we also learn

  • that experts are located,

  • are governed,

  • by the social and cultural norms

  • of their times --

  • whether it be the doctors

  • in Victorian England, say,

  • who sent women to asylums

  • for expressing sexual desire,

  • or the psychiatrists in the United States

  • who, up until 1973,

  • were still categorizing homosexuality

  • as a mental illness.

  • And what all this means

  • is that paradigms

  • take far too long to shift,

  • that complexity and nuance are ignored

  • and also that money talks --

  • because we've all seen the evidence

  • of pharmaceutical companies

  • funding studies of drugs

  • that conveniently leave out

  • their worst side effects,

  • or studies funded by food companies

  • of their new products,

  • massively exaggerating the health benefits

  • of the products they're about to bring by market.

  • The study showed that food companies exaggerated

  • typically seven times more

  • than an independent study.

  • And we've also got to be aware

  • that experts, of course,

  • also make mistakes.

  • They make mistakes every single day --

  • mistakes born out of carelessness.

  • A recent study in the Archives of Surgery

  • reported surgeons

  • removing healthy ovaries,

  • operating on the wrong side of the brain,

  • carrying out procedures on the wrong hand,

  • elbow, eye, foot,

  • and also mistakes born out of thinking errors.

  • A common thinking error

  • of radiologists, for example --

  • when they look at CT scans --

  • is that they're overly influenced

  • by whatever it is

  • that the referring physician has said

  • that he suspects

  • the patient's problem to be.

  • So if a radiologist

  • is looking at the scan

  • of a patient with suspected pneumonia, say,

  • what happens is that,

  • if they see evidence

  • of pneumonia on the scan,

  • they literally stop looking at it --

  • thereby missing the tumor

  • sitting three inches below

  • on the patient's lungs.

  • I've shared with you so far

  • some insights into the world of experts.

  • These are, of course,

  • not the only insights I could share,

  • but I hope they give you a clear sense at least

  • of why we need to stop kowtowing to them,

  • why we need to rebel

  • and why we need to switch

  • our independent decision-making capabilities on.

  • But how can we do this?

  • Well for the sake of time,

  • I want to focus on just three strategies.

  • First, we've got to be ready and willing

  • to take experts on

  • and dispense with this notion of them

  • as modern-day apostles.

  • This doesn't mean having to get a Ph.D.

  • in every single subject,

  • you'll be relieved to hear.

  • But it does mean persisting

  • in the face of their inevitable annoyance

  • when, for example,

  • we want them to explain things to us

  • in language that we can actually understand.

  • Why was it that, when I had an operation,

  • my doctor said to me,

  • "Beware, Ms. Hertz,

  • of hyperpyrexia,"

  • when he could have just as easily said,

  • "Watch out for a high fever."

  • You see, being ready to take experts on

  • is about also being willing

  • to dig behind their graphs,

  • their equations, their forecasts,

  • their prophecies,

  • and being armed with the questions to do that --

  • questions like:

  • What are the assumptions that underpin this?

  • What is the evidence upon which this is based?

  • What has your investigation focused on?

  • And what has it ignored?

  • It recently came out

  • that experts trialing drugs

  • before they come to market

  • typically trial drugs

  • first, primarily on male animals

  • and then, primarily on men.

  • It seems that they've somehow overlooked the fact

  • that over half the world's population are women.