Experts vs. Non-experts

Scott’s article the Epistemic Minor Leagues went viral.

As a nitpick, I think a more accurate title would have been ‘intellectual minor leagues’. Epistemology is more concerned with how humans acquire knowledge or apply knowledge to justify their beliefs, as opposed to being a descriptor or quantifier of individual knowledge. He even calls it that below:

And I notice how often the intellectual minor leagues are about politics: that rare area where there are no real experts, and it’s every man for himself. Read some physics, think a bit, and announce you’ve discovered the Theory of Everything, and people will call you a crank. Read some history, think a bit, and announce you’ve discovered the secrets of the Lizard Papacy, and people will call you a nut. But read some politics, think a bit, and announce you’ve figured out how all existing institutions are corrupt and only you know how to run them fairly – and you can end up anywhere from interesting-at-parties, to newspaper columnist, to US President.

I completely agree with this though. The intellectual barriers to entry of being an expert at a ‘hard science’ are way higher than pontificating about politics, and also math and physics require much more preciseness and rigor compared to the humanities and social sciences, not hand-waving or vagueness (although some fields of econ, such as quantitative finance, are heavy in math). I think economics and finance is a nice middle-ground between requiring objectivity and rigor, but also providing opportunities for non-experts to have an edge over experts, which you don’t see in the hard sciences.

I will use myself as an example of how ‘lay people’ can beat the ‘experts’. Despite my ‘formal’ economics experience being limited to just 3 community college courses over a decade ago, two in macro econ and one in micro [in hindsight the classes were valuable though, and I recommend everyone take macro and micro econ even if you have no plan to become an economist, because I think it just helps open your mind to thinking of things in a more objective, systematic manner], my forecasts , stock picks, investment strategies, and understanding of trends and how the market and the modern economy works, is peerless. Meanwhile the overpaid experts keep getting things wrong, predicting and crisis and recession over and over to no avail, whether it’s doom and gloom after Trump won, or doom and gloom regarding Trump’s tariffs, or the over-hyped US-China trade war that never came to be, despite the media talking about it incessantly from 2018-2019. Or how the media and ‘health experts’ overestimated vaccine effectiveness. It’s evident these people do not know as much as their credentials would otherwise suggest.

For example, in March 2020 Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller predicted a recession due to Covid, a forecast which coincidentally also marked the bottom of the Covid crash, so anyone who sold their stocks in anticipation of recession would have sold at the worst possible time. He technically was right, there was a recession, but is was very brief, and by March it was obvious that there would be some economic disruption. In April 2020 by running a simple calculation of Covid deaths vs. baseline population replacement, showing that the economic toll of American Covid deaths would be minimal and temporary, I predicted the stock market and U.S. economy would quickly recover all its losses, which it did by Fall of 2020. No one else bothered to make this calculation as I had or arrived at this insight.

For example, during the Evergrande scandal, in which the S&P 500 temporarily fell around 5%, I correctly predicted it would be a ‘nothing burger’, writing “[On a related note, the whole China Evergrande Group implosion is a nothing-burger, and I would be buying any dips on the S&P 500 or NASDAQ now.] ”

As of today, the S&P 500 crossed 4600, it’s highest closing value ever. It took me about 1 minute after reading the headline about Evergrande to make a correct forecast, whereas experts paid 6-7 figures a year mostly got it wrong. Of course, they produce detailed research reports full of figures and calculations in order to justify their salary and existence, but in the end what matter for investors is do you ‘buy or sell’, not hundreds of pages superfluous data.

Even ‘reputable’ experts in biology, despite being a part of ‘STEM’, get things wrong. An example is Stephen Jay Gould regarding his deliberate misconstruction of IQ and and craniometry, to advance a political agenda. I think much of diet and heath research is probably wrong or of dubious value. Environmental factors such as diet, exercise, and weight loss does little to prevent early death, and that genes almost entirely explain individual health outcomes and life expectancy. Modern medicine is much more effective at prolonging life compared to lifestyle modification, and the emphasis should be on making better drugs instead of trying to get people to modify their behavior.

For example the link between obesity and early death is probably wrong or overstated. For example, Eisenhower famously had a heart attack in 1955, quite an obese fella that Eisenhower was:

There is still no consensus about good vs. bad cholesterol, and new studies have cast doubt on conventional wisdom:

Setting targets for ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol levels to ward off heart disease and death in those at risk might seem intuitive, but decades of research have failed to show any consistent benefit for this approach, reveals an analysis of the available data, published online in BMJ Evidence Based Medicine.

But in regard to math, physics, computer science, coding, medicine, and chemistry, all bets are off. Laypeople do not stand a chance. It’s just so hopeless to even think that someone without the necessary credentials can make any progress or have an edge over the experts. I have never seen it happen in which someone without at least a PhD can disprove a physicist or mathematician, derive a novel result, or solve an important unsolved problem; when it happens, they make a movie about it. There are of course exceptions, such as Claude E. Shannon’s master’s thesis, which was a groundbreaking result, but these are rare, and he was still operating within the framework of academia. Coding does not require a PhD, but it’s not something you can BS about; either you can code well or you cannot. But physics has plenty of open questions, such as dark matter, the formation, expansion, and fate of the universe, etc., yet it’s not like anyone outside of academia has any shot of making progress at those.

Scott continues:

One place you could go from here is to talk about how QAnoners are the sort of people who are excluded from existing systems of knowledge production. They are never going to be Professors of Biology, and they know it. Their only hopes of being taken seriously as an Expert – a position our culture treats as the height of dignity – is to create a complete alternate system of knowledge, ungrounded in any previous system, where they can end up as an expert on the Lizard Papacy.

But does anyone take these people seriously as an expert, beyond their respective communities/devotees? The only people who think Alex Jones is an ‘expert’ are Alex Jones fans. Even on 4chan, q-anon has become an object of ridicule, as none of its ‘prophecies’ have come true and it’s become associated with boomers who share q-memes on Facebook. Even Alex Jones is not that popular on 4chan either, as young, critically-minded people have grown tired of his hype, pill-pushing, and fear-peddling. These people tend to not be held in high regard anywhere outside of their small but loyal community of followers, compared to credentialed experts. And compared to someone like Trevor Noah or Obama, society tends to look down at people like Alex Jones with derision and contempt. I dunno know how being banished from all social media platforms is the ‘height of dignity’.

Overall, I think the ‘experts’ have an advantage in terms off explaining how things works (like why economies go into recession, or how fractional reserve banking works), and possibly providing solutions. It’s reasonable to assume that Paul Krugman knows more about macro econ than a person randomly plucked off the street, but Krugman’s forecasts would likely not be that much better than a coin toss, or possibly even worse (he has gotten so many things wrong, that it’s become a meme). Doctors are more knowledgeable about the intricacies of the human heart compared to non-doctors, but predicting who will get heart attack given some possible risk factors is much harder.