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Screwballs and Experts—Part Three: Car Talk

December 6, 2020

On my daily pre-dawn walks, I listen to podcasts, and recently I’ve been working my way through NPR’s backlog of "Car Talk," an hour-long program featuring two brothers giving advice to callers on problems they are having with their cars.

This is a silly program for me to spend an hour of my day listening for a variety of reasons:

1)     The show has been off-the-air for a long time now, certainly since one of the brothers died a decade or so ago. These are just archived programs, which…

2)     …feature questions and answers about very old cars. The typical call concerns a problem the caller is having with her 1988 Honda Accord, so its relevance to any car I might currently own is extremely marginal, and…

3)     …I don’t know or care about automotive issues in the first place. I’ve owned a car for most of the past 30 years, but other than ‘how to put it into gear,’ have practically no knowledge or interest in how or why it runs, plus which…

4)     …the vast majority of these problems are weird, one-off problems relevant only to that particular car or driver or climate or locale


Nonetheless, I’ve been a devoted listener for decades, since about the mid-eighties when I escaped graduate school and could finally afford the cheapest car on the planet, and also finally had enough leisure time to listen to an hour of radio per week. Since it’s not my fascination with automotive arcana that drives my interest in the program, what does drive that interest?

I find it entertaining to hear experts in any field adroitly answering questions. If the "Car Talk" brothers were astronomers instead of car mechanics and the program were called "Star Talk" I would be a devotee, I think, though I know even less about astronomy than I do about automobiles. "The ‘Car Talk’ Brothers" btw is merely another of the many names I have for the two gentlemen, whose real names are Tom and Ray Magliozzi but who call themselves variously "The Tappet Brothers," "Click and Clack," and other pseudonyms such as "knucklehead," "my ignorant brother" and other terms of abuse and affection in the course of putting on a show. One of their more charming qualities is their heavy Boston accents, which turns "Tom" into "Tawm" and "Car" into "Cah" and "Honda Accord" into "Hawndah Acood."

Equally charming, I find, is their habit, mostly Tawm’s, of cackling insanely at almost every juncture. It just puts me into a good mood to hear this guy cracking up at every witty remark his brother, or a caller, or he himself makes, even though much of the wit on the program is half-witted at best. Just hearing Tawm cackle makes me laugh, and makes the remarks he’s cackling over seem much funnier than they actually are.

Not everyone finds his laugh entertaining. That was my own brother’s principal response, in fact, when I advised him to listen to this show: "Holy crap!" he wrote, "You can stand listening to some jerk laugh and laugh and laugh over nothing for most of an hour? You must be out of your friggin’ skull," which has been a subject of considerable frequency in the decades my brother and I have known each other, how far out of my friggin’ skull I am, in fact, out of. My brother, who owned a tree service in the Rocky Mountains for most of his life, drove his fleet of trucks constantly, spending much of his career behind the wheel,  and is far more knowledgeable about cars and trucks and their maintenance than I will ever be, so I thought he’d show some interest in the subject matter, if not the hosts’ style, but no. Bored him to tears, apparently.

The dynamic between siblings is another thing that drives my interest in "Car Talk." How the two Magliozzi get along, while making the most vicious attacks on the other’s acumen, native intelligence, and general competence, interrupted by mirth and merriment and incessant cackling, is the quintessence of a fraternal relationship. The Magliozzi boys have a certain schtik to their program, which I find both repetitive and comforting: for example, they have a regular feature called the Car Talk Puzzler, where they pose a new thorny question (sometimes automotive in nature, sometimes not) every week, and in another portion of the show they answer last week’s puzzler. I find the boilerplate parts of the puzzler fascinating. One of them (Ray, the younger brother by 12 years) announces the puzzler by asking his older brother if he remembers what the question is, and Tom always initially denies remembering it. This routine is tinged with retrospective sadness, as I understand that Tom, in real life, was actually afflicted with a form of dementia in the years before he died, but I think at the time these were recorded it was just a comic routine  about how bad his memory was. Anyway, the request to mail in an answer to the listeners always takes the same form, a reminder to mail in the answer on the back of a twenty-dollar bill, and the address is always given word-for-word identically as "Post Office Box 2299, Harvard Square, Cambridge," at which point Tom interrupts to say, somewhat inanely, "our fair city," and Ray then resumes by specifying "MA" (pronounced "Mah") and supplies the zip code. Week after week, the same exact formula, which appears throughout the show—every one of them ends with Ray intoning "Well, it’s happened again, you’ve wasted another hour listening to Car Talk…" and the credits are given at laborious length, some of them naming the actual people who work on the show, the producer, the office manager, and so on, but most of them again formulaically fictional people with absurd job descriptions such as "our driver, Pikop Andropov" and such, punctuated by cackles and chortles by Tom, as if he hadn’t heard these silly jokes a million times already.

One of the actual credits, however, returns us to the ostensible theme of this article, which is "expertise." The program’s technical advisor is credited as "John ‘Bugsy’ Lawlor," a real-life person to whom they will occasionally refer in the course of the program. I didn’t make much of either Lawlor nor the position of "Technical Advisor," until I began writing about expertise, when I started wondering "Why exactly do the Magliozzi brothers need a technical advisor? Aren’t they experts themselves in this exact field?"  

"Expert?" is a term of art screaming out for a definition here, and it is very hard to come up with a definition that will satisfy everyone, particularly me and Bill James.  Let me quote again the exchange he and I had a few years ago on "Hey Bill", in which Bill tried to school me:

Here's the problem with your answer (which I endorse wholeheartedly) "People who are not scientists have sometimes not dealt honestly with the material, not because they are dishonest but because they just don't QUITE get what science is":  


Of course, they don't understand science nearly as well as scientists, and so they tend to overstate, and misstate, sometimes sincerely, sometimes duplicitously.  But scientists are the experts in their fields,

Asked by: Steven Goldleaf

Answered: 4/30/2017

 No, that's not right.    But I give you credit for having perfectly stated the fallacy, the misunderstanding.     Scientists are NOT the experts in their field.    There is a very fundamental difference between a scientist and an expert, an irreconcilable difference.   Anyone who thinks that a scientist is an expert in science doesn't understand what science or what it does.  That is the exact core of the problem.   


The dichotomy between scientists and experts is very much like the split between scouts and analysts described in Moneyball (a split which, I repeat, I have not seen in my own experience, but don't question that Michael Lewis described accurately from his.)   Scouts are experts in baseball.   Analysts are scientists, or joke scientists at least, borrowing scientific methods for petty causes.   They have fundamentally different views of the world. 


An expert represents the current state of knowledge in a field.  An expert takes the wisdom of previous generations and advocates it in the current generation, understanding that by "a previous generation" we may mean two months ago, but an expert unavoidably and always argues that what is BELIEVED to be true, IS true.  The truth is what the experts in the field believe it to be.   


A scientist ATTACKS the current state of knowledge in the field, undermines it, questions, probes constantly for its weaknesses and failures.  This is what science is; it is probing for the errors in our current understanding of the issue.  An expert is a hitter; a scientist is a pitcher.   What one is trying to do, the other is trying to prevent.   


A scientist can be an expert in the same sense that a pitcher can be a hitter--as a minor part of his job, at which he is almost always not very good.   But expertise and science are not only fundamentally different, they are inherently at war with one another.   



I don’t school too easily, but I have learned slowly and painfully that arguing in "Hey Bill" is a mug’s game. Bill distinguishes sharply in his answer above between "experts" and "scientists," which is a distinction I can accept provisionally without any of the sharpness Bill sees as a wall between the two terms. The way I see it, not all "experts" will be scientists, and not all "scientists" will be experts, but there is an awful lot of overlap between the terms. Sometimes a 99% percent overlap, sometimes even 100%. Bill seems to view this Venn diagram as two billiard balls on opposite ends of the pool table, or even on separate pool tables, which I can’t see at all.

I’m not even sure I understand what he means by the word "expert." Sometimes I think he uses it to mean an authority (specifically, an obnoxious know-it-all self-important false authority), other times to distinguish between "scientists" and "practitioners." Is the head of the CDC a scientist or an expert in epidemiology? Seems to me it’s inarguable that such a person qualifies as both a scientist and as an expert. If you think otherwise, which title do you want to take away from him? I’d want to hear the argument for either epaulet to be torn from his shoulders.

Is Anthony Fauci an expert or a scientist? Most experts, such as Fauci (who comes from my neighborhood in Brooklyn and whose accent I find  both abrasive and soothing) is clearly both, first a scientist and then, after he’s been recognized as pre-eminent in his scientific field, an expert who supervises other scientists, researchers, medical practitioners, as he makes his scientific/expert recommendations and tries to run the CDC’s policy shop.

Perhaps the role that Bill objects to in "experts" is their tendency to give flat answers to round questions. As a scientist, perhaps Fauci’s best (if long-winded) answers would be reporting, positively and negatively, on the results of experiments and procedures he has personally performed, with appropriate citations and references that only another specialist in the field could possibly make sense of. But as an expert, he would be pressed to summarize his understanding of many, many experiments and procedures to give a concise summary of where the consensus of knowledge stands at the present moment, certainly omitting those parts that seem less relevant to the question being asked (that might be inadequately phrased) and equally certainly distorting the subtler findings of relevant experiments and procedures in order to make his answer understandable to his audience.

I can relate to this distinction between the roles of "experts" and "scientists" better in a non-scientific context. Take my own field, such as it is: broadly, I hold a doctorate in American Literature. (Actually, I think it’s in the field of "English Literature," with "English" designating a language rather than a nationality, but I don’t think taking a dozen or so graduate courses in the literature of Britain, and passing oral exams on the subject, nearly qualifies me as an expert in that broad area of study.) Passing those four-hour-long oral comprehensive exams qualified me to take a rigorous four-hour-long oral exam in the specific field of "American Literature from 1865 to 1945, excluding drama." (I think I actually knew American drama a little better than I knew American poetry at the time, but I had to prepare to show off my knowledge of poetry, while I could deflect questions about drama, if I wanted to, which I didn’t.)  And  I had to write a dissertation—basically, a short book—in my field of specialization, which was "Creative Writing," meaning that I had to submit some of my short stories, prefaced by a rather windy and tortured explanation of how and where they fit (or didn’t fit) into the mainstream of American Literature. (And oddly enough, part of my dissertation, I would say the main part, was a play that I adapted from a short story by John O’Hara, so the "excluding drama" codicil didn’t apply here—I had to know drama pretty thoroughly to include a play in my explanation.) And of course, after getting my Ph. D., I had to publish several works—scholarly articles in peer-reviewed literary journals, and books—in my area of expertise in order to earn promotions and tenure.

And you know what? After doing that, I’m still far from an expert in American Literature, at least as the real experts in the field consider me. Oh, they’ll tolerate my presence on a panel discussing some AmLit topic now and then, but real experts and I both know perfectly well that I’m a dabbler in almost all subjects related to American Literature. Of all of the thousands of  authors in "my" time period (and "authors" are only one way of categorizing the field—there are also subjects, genres, themes, geographics, movements, and about eight other ways to divvy up the field of AmLit), I’m well-read in maybe a few dozen at most, and really well-read in only a handful, mainly those authors I’ve published extensively on: O’Hara, Richard Yates, Scott Fitzgerald for sure, and maybe a half-dozen others I’ve published less extensively on.

And you know what else? I’ve probably published eight or ten articles on Fitzgerald, plus I’ve made a short documentary on The Great Gatsby, and I’m not even the most qualified Fitzgerald expert in my own department, much less in the International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, which has maybe a thousand members around the world. At our semi-annual conferences, at which I’ve spoken a dozen or so times, I could happily point to anyone who asks the thirty or forty scholars who dwarf me in general knowledge of Fitzgerald’s life and works. In that area of specialization, the Fitzgerald Society sometimes refers people looking for an expert to me if what they’re interested in is specifically Fitzgerald’s work in the mid-1920s when he was living on Long Island, and sometimes on his work in the late 1930s when he lived in Hollywood.

Which is to ask: am I an expert in Fitzgerald? In American prose literature of the mid-twentieth century? Of all American Lit of the entire twentieth century? Of all writing in the English language from its beginnings through last evening?

Depends on who you ask, doesn’t it? If you’re not in my field, you might consider me qualified as an expert in the ludicrously broad field I just named, "all writing in English, ever." (I did pass several courses in Old English thirty-five years ago, though damned if I can remember a thing beyond the titles of the books I read in that incomprehensible language that was archaic by the 13th century.) I was talking to my therapist a while back about some problems I was having with one of my kids, to give you an example of how I’ve been mistaken for an expert in a subject I’m not even close to being expert in. We were discussing my feeling underappreciated by one of my daughters, and my shrink said, "Yes, well, as I think Shakespeare said somewhere,  it feels horrible to have an ungrateful child" and reflexively I answered,  "That’s Act One of King Lear, ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,’" and he was utterly flabbergasted that I could supply so precise a verbatim quote from  a specific part of the play off the tip of my tongue, in flawless iambic pentameter, but no real Shakespeare expert, or even a real professor of British drama, would be impressed in the least by this rendering of so widely known a phrase.  It took me about five minutes to get him off the subject of "How did you know THAT? That’s amazing!" (and about five seconds for me to regret interjecting that bit of pedantic specificity into the conversation we had been having), which I accomplished by pointing out that in his field, he could probably refer me instantly to thousands of psychological treatises I’d never even heard of but in which he had been trained in and studied deeply for years.

Or, to return to the Magliozzi brothers, I can’t tell you how impressive I find their encyclopedic knowledge of cars, though I wonder if my even more profound ignorance of cars is what causes me to be so impressed by them. I think the chief appeal of Car Talk to me is the alacrity with which they come up on the fly with answers to questions, almost before they’re even asked. Someone will get them on the horn, and say, "I’ve got a 1988 Dodge Dart, and when I start it up—" and one of the brothers will interrupt with "You get a sound, sorta sounds like ‘uh-uh-uh-uh’ and then it goes ‘AWOOOGAH!’, right?" and the caller exclaims, "How did you know THAT?", just as my shrink did, and maybe with as little reason to. But since I lack any knowledge of the automotive field, I am impressed, even more so than American sailors were by the British navy in the early 19th century. It’s completely baffling to me how the Magliozzi (that name just looks like a plural noun to me) could retain in their skulls so many details about the parts, characteristics, prices, mechanics’ workarounds, and driving techniques that they do, but maybe this knowledge is less impressive to people who know more than I do, which is to say, to people who know anything at all.  

Maybe the knowledge that the horn relay switch on a 1992 Jeep Wrangler is located near the firewall on the driver’s side is as common to mechanics as the top-dozen common Shakespeare quotations are to professors of English, but I find myself marveling over the seemingly infinite bits of wisdom that the Magliozzi apply instantly to almost any question about any part of any car that gets tossed their way.

Some of this is just schtik, of course, and I recognize the show-biz aspects of the show. Right now, I’m listening to show #1815 (is it even possible that they did over 2000 weekly shows? Could they have perhaps started their numbering system arbitrarily at 1500-something?) and there are portions of the show that are absurdly well-rehearsed, perhaps 30% of each show’s content. That 30% consists of boilerplate introductions  (the show begins with the same 15 seconds of banjo music followed by  "Hello, and welcome to Car Talk on National Public Radio, with us, Click and Clack the Tappet brothers and we’re broadcasting this week from the Listener Incentives Division here on Car Talk Plaza," though the name of the division changes every week, as a segue to their first topic of discussion, and  it ends every week with that extensive listing of all the personnel who worked on the production of the program, some of them actual people doing actual jobs but most of them made-up names that would be funny if you haven’t heard the same jokes every week for years, and also if the brother rattling off the names would slow down enough to allow people to make out what he’s saying.

It’s always the same brother who does the majority of the boilerplate shtiklach, the younger of the two, Ray Magliozzi. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen what the brothers look like, but over the years I’ve formed a very specific image in my mind of each of them, and I’ll be very perturbed if I ever were to find out that my mental picture is wrong, as it almost certainly must be, being based on nothing but the sounds of their voices. For some reason, I picture Ray as nearly bald, somewhat heavy-set, and moderately short, about 5’8", looking somewhat like Richard Castelleno ("Clemenza" in the Godfather movies) while I picture Tom, his older brother, as looking exactly like the actor, also conveniently of Italian descent, Richard Libertini, best known to me as "Prakha Lasa" from the Steve Martin movie ALL OF ME but a bit player in dozens of TV shows and movies over the years.  , tall and skinny, piping up in counterpoint to his brother, often as a support for Ray’s automotive diagnoses, occasionally as a dissenting voice from them. He manages to interject his inane cackle, after all these years, reliably into varying points of Ray’s closing catalogue of absurd names, exactly as if he’s surprised and pleased by the silly punning that’s he’s heard week after week, month after month, decade after decade. It sounds like this:


RAY: "...our statistician is Marge Innovera—"

TOM: (yelping with uncontrollable joy) "HAW, HAW, HAW, HAW, HAW!!!!"

RAY: "and our customer care representative is Haywood Yabuzzoff—"


If you think it’s easy laughing uncontrollably every week at stuff you’ve heard a million times before, well, all I can say is—you try it some time. These guys were gifted performers, playing the parts of expert mechanics, sibling rivals, thoughtful interlocutors, and many other roles.

They do have some real-life automotive credentials, apart from their years working in their own garage—they both hold advanced degrees from M.I.T. and are strangely conversant in areas way out of the sphere of automotive repair. They seem to know a lot about science, often explaining their explanation with references to various physical laws, mathematical formulae, chemical reaction of various fluids and solids, and the like, but frequently in areas far removed from stuff that makes cars work, such as geography, or orthography, or ancient history. These are very intelligent, well-read guys pretending to be goofing around and teasing each other and their callers before getting down to business.

Would you call them, the Magliozzi brothers, "experts"?  If so, what makes them experts? Their willingness to opine publicly on zero advance notice? (More about "zero advance notice" in a moment—which relates to John "Bugsy" Lawlor,  their "technical advisor," another topic you may have forgotten by now I’ve also promised to get back to shortly.) Their academic credentials?  Their hands-on experience repairing cars?  Their unusually large grasp of a wide variety of cars’ problems?

Or is it just a mark of my lack of expertise that I suggest they are experts? Have they, in other words, fooled me with their clever performance into thinking so, but a panel of true experts would, like my panel of true Fitzgerald scholars dismissing me as their equal, laugh at the idea of the Magliozzis’ expertise?

In any serious formal field of study, or even in some comically informal fields of study, there is general agreement on who knows his stuff and who doesn’t. Sometimes, you’ll get groups of experts who’ll endorse the members of their own group, while acknowledging that the other groups, while fully qualified to be counted in the top ranks, approach certain key issues incorrectly. Still, there is usually a small, select number of people who are generally acknowledged to be the top players in a specialized area, however much they might disagree on important topics.

Take baseball, a comically informal field of specialization, compared to those fields with genuine credentials. Who are the experts in baseball?



It seems to me that there’s something unhealthy about declaring one’s own views equal to, or superior to, that of "experts," unhealthy in sense of "ego-driven." Again, not that some well-chosen skepticism isn’t absolutely necessary, but I’m talking here of a general and abiding skepticism about every subject under the sun—that’s not skepticism, it’s pure solipsism: if I think it, it must be right, and I’ll twist myself into a bag of pretzels proving that it’s so. This is where conspiracy-thinking comes in, justifying believing all sorts of glowing-red flashing neon-lights crazy nonsense just because if the whole universe is crazy, then your ideas don’t look so bad anymore.

This is coming from a skeptic, mind you. I’ve been a full-blown JFK-assassination conspiracy nut, a close-to-lifelong atheist, a very selective anti-vaxxer, but I’m skeptical about skepticism, and try to restrict myself to one or two active conspiracy theories at any given time. For the rest of my beliefs, I’ll allow the experts to guide my thinking, unless we’re in some arena where I’ve actually earned a bit of expertise myself (mainly mid-20th century AmLit, baseball, painting, and maybe a few others). One of the pernicious myths that ignorant people often spin about expertise is that relying on expert opinion commits you then to relying on it rigidly, which is frankly impossible, because all sorts of experts often disagree with each other. How could you possibly rely on experts to tell you what to think when there’s dissention among the experts themselves?

You’re responsible for sorting out which experts seem to you the most expert on a particular topic, or perhaps which expert opinion seems more likely to your inexpert eye, or possibly which expert you favor over other recognized experts in that area, based perhaps on credentials or track record or length of experience or some other rational basis. The hard part, of course, is for you as a decided non-expert to make these calls, all involving knowledge and understanding well above your pay grade, so many do choose to make an inferior call, and choose the expert opinion that simply best supports their prejudices.

Quite honestly, the broader the number and the types of fields in which people choose to hold skeptical or contrarian non-expert opinions, the more certain it is that their skepticism or contrarianism is a simple mask for their solipsism, the shameless belief that they personally are, somehow, the center of all that is true. Whether fueled by narcissism, insecurity, egotism, a lack of self-awareness, a failure of humility—however you’d like to express it—a person who believes in a great number of conspiracies, oddball theories contrary to received scientific thinking, irrational dogmas is dangerously close to being dismissed (rightly) as a crazy person.

So we need to pick and choose a very limited number of exceptions to any broad scientific consensus. Choosing an unlimited number of exceptions, of course, seems downright liberating to some people, those who relish being identified as a crazy person by most other people, and who delight in the title "Consistent Oddball," and who would rather be "original" in their beliefs than "rational," and who prefer being dismissed to being accepted because they think dismissal is a special mark applied to geniuses.  And geniuses are often dismissed—but is it likely that you are a genius? Depending on how many and how varied your skeptical or contrarian beliefs are, I’d say the odds are tilting exponentially towards "crazy person" and away from "rare genius."

What to do, however, in an area where people whom you recognize as true experts disagree fundamentally in their analyses of a crucial problem, and where you truly have no basis at all to select the analysis you prefer? This is difficult, but sometimes frustration and difficulty is the position that we find ourselves in. The other option, it seems to me, is to select purely arbitrarily among the expert analyses, which may be satisfying in that it gets you to a resolution rather than an ongoing state of doubt, but I would counsel you to find a way to live in doubt, which is at least honest and open to continuing study. The question of the age of the universe, for example, and the very nature of time itself, is still wide-open among the experts in that area of cosmology, as far as I can understand it (which isn’t very far. I’m pretty ignorant of astronomical lore, though I enjoy reading popularizations of current scientific thinking on the subject.) To find that some experts think the universe is 11.3 billion years old and others think 13.5 billion (or whatever the current figures are) leaves you  in doubt (as if you really care) but deciding that you prefer the more conservative figure of 6,000 years because that was how you were raised, and the "experts" don’t even agree themselves, pretty well self-identifies you as someone seeking to puff up his own ego rather than to find the truth.

I should conclude this long segment, but not before exposing my own long-delayed theory about.John "Bugsy" Lawlor and his role on "Car Talk" of "technical advisor." The Magliozzi brothers seem to be experts themselves in all matters automotive, so I wondered about the need for a technical advisor. As it happens, that role has been explained by all the technical work done by Mr. Lawlor behind the scenes,  testing out various new models of cars, and researching all sorts of issues that the Magliozzi boys didn’t have the time or inclination to research themselves, which is fine. But my wondering concerned exactly what he did during the running time of the show, particularly in his ability to do research in the middle of segments that may have baffled the Magliozzi. That is to say, that most of the time, the answers to certain questions were obvious ones to the brothers themselves, but when the answers were not so obvious, I suspected that was when they would rely on the research skills of Mr. Lawlor. (Who spells his name that way—I looked it up because I couldn’t be sure that wasn’t the Bostonian pronunciation of "Lollar.") I imagined that when they’d be confronted with a vexing problem whose answer did not spring readily to mind, they’d get Mr. Lawlor frantically using all his research skills to come up with an answer, while they would be engaging the questioner with all sorts of diversionary banter.

They did that a lot. People would call up and identify themselves by their first names and their hometown. "Hi, I’m Marjorie from Portland, and I’ve got a question about the carburetor on my Morris Minor," a woman might begin. If the brothers were deeply familiar with the carburetor system of Morris Minors, they might get efficiently down to that discussion, but if their familiarity was less than deep, they might engage her in near-endless discussion of her preferred spelling of "Marjorie," even to the extent of telling long shaggy stories about women they’ve known who spelled it "Margery," and then perhaps to even longer distinctions between Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine, and long philosophical discussions of which Portland should assume the rightful title of the real Portland and which one needs to identify itself by adding the name of the state, and on and on, which often preceded the answering of the automotive question at hand. While all this diversionary chatter and incessant cackling is ensuing, I picture the beleaguered Bugsy phoning up the country’s truest Morris Minor expert and then scribbling a placard "GOT IT!" to the brothers who would then tackle the question, the answer to which Bugsy could convey on another tersely phrased placard.

Of course, this is sheer projection on my part.  As with most frauds, I’m thinking "Well, that’s what I might do to fake being an expert in an area beyond my expertise, consulting with the real expert but leaving my consultation in the background while displaying my own knowledge confidently foregrounded." I guess my point is that no one, to my thinking, is really an all-knowing expert in every part of his own field, and that expertise is, again to my thinking, more a matter of consulting with a board of experts and reaching a consensus among them rather than relying on one’s own understanding and gut response. Just knowing who the real experts are, and having the standing to ask them the right questions, is the true basis of expertise.


COMMENTS (18 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
I'd say the other way 'round, Rex. You can be a bad scientist, but "bad expert" just means you're not an expert.
3:10 PM Dec 16th
Seems to me that to function effectively as a scientist, one must first become an expert. How can you question existing knowledge if you don't know what it is?

8:08 AM Dec 15th
Have hundreds of episodes downloaded. Great for listening to in the car.


9:31 AM Dec 12th
I think that's right, Marc. You also have something like the publication of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in that period, and unless I'm mistaken, you can see the influence of Kuhn all over Bill's statement there. That book laid out the ways in which one established paradigm cracks and gives way to another, and it seems pretty clear that the "clutch hitting/batting average" worldview giving way to the "replacement value/OBP" worldview is nearly a picture-perfect example of the genre.

But more to the point, the publication of Kuhn's book itself would tend to decrease the tension between future iterations of gatekeepers and renegades. The renegades would be a little bit less likely to put up their wall of undoubting certitude, having read and absorbed Kuhn. The same is true of Bill. He represents the vanguard of knowledge (or did recently) and endlessly preaches, "don't trust experts, certainty is overrated, we are only constantly making horrendously imprecise guesses about reality, which is endlessly complex," etc. Bill's "endlessly complex" paradigm tends to flatten the difference between the experts and the renegades, in the final analysis we're all ignorant.
3:19 PM Dec 11th
Marc Schneider
The problem with the "best and the brightest" generation is that they were so cloistered in their own little intellectual universe that they did not understand what they did not understand. A scientist, in most cases, understands that there is much he or she does not understand about a particular problem. As I guess Bill sees it, an expert simply declaims on the received wisdom of the day, which may or may not be correct. The domino theory was the received wisdom of the Vietnam generation of leaders; it turned out to be egregiously wrong, but no one was really interested (partly due to politics) in challenging it. So these guys (they were all men) would spout something as if it was gospel and people would think, wow, if MacGeorge Bundy says we have to be in Vietnam, he's an expert, so he must know what he's talking about. And you still have that, people expounding on things as if they have the absolute truth when, in fact, they are just speculating. And, to hit on another of Bill's themes, reality is often too complicated (at least outside of the physical sciences) to actually be an expert. A true expert would say, this is too complicated to make a definitive statement. But they wouldn't get on tv is they said that.
11:06 AM Dec 11th
I just now developed a theory about Bill's "scientists v. experts" dichotomy.

The thesis runs that Bill is/was reacting to a particular midcentury variety of expert that is somewhat on the wane. So whereas once there existed a phalanx of experts/gatekeepers blocking access to the higher echelons of knowledge and understanding, over time the weaknesses of this mode of inquiry have become apparent to most everybody — precisely due to the intense and democratically minded irritation of men and women like Bill James, who so deeply shares that irritation with his generational cohort — I say, over time, the people who today progress to the top of their fields might be a lot more humble about it and refuse to acknowledge the need for all of the weird retentive prestige protection so characteristic of the postwar generation and its forebears.

I think in that paradigm, you could see a situation where Bill perceives those Venn diagram billiard balls to be quite separate, whereas over the decades they have moved a lot closer to each other.
2:46 AM Dec 11th
Expertise in a discipline is mastery of its methods.
5:42 PM Dec 10th
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, the best and the brightest. But I think that phrase has been misused, almost to the point of seeming to say that we should prefer the worst and the dimmest, just because even the best and the brightest advisors got into an awful mess once upon a time, or even that they've done so often in our history. Bill's railing against "experts" partakes of this thinking a bit. Yes, of course, some experts have made horrendous errors, and yes, of course, we need to temper any blind obedience to authority. But that doesn't mean we need to reject authority reflexively or deny it to those who have earned some authority, and it certainly doesn't mean that we should mistrust anyone because he or she is called an expert. Sometimes, probably most of the time, the experts are right, even prescient. Raging against them because they're sometimes wrong, and sometimes not even legitimate experts, is self-defeating foolishness, in my expert opinion.
7:41 PM Dec 9th
Marc Schneider
Very good article, Steven. I agree with your notion of being skeptical about skepticism. I think skepticism about received wisdom is good in general but, as with all absolutes, it can go too far.

As for the difference between expert and scientist, does it really make a difference? I agree that scientists question everything, but some things are not open to question anymore. Does any sane person question whether gravity exists? The point is, I'm looking to Faucci for reliable information on the current state of knowledge about the corona virus. But, as the article pointed out, there's no reason you can't be both. I'm not interested in questioning how this may change in another year. I find it frankly annoying that Bill makes this semantic distinction. The reality is that I am in no position to question Faucci on the virus or climatologists on climate change or, for that matter, Bill James on sabermetrics. His notion seems that be that, since experts are not scientists, shouldn't use them as authority for some proposition. But the only way I can think intelligently about climate change is by referencing what people with expertise in the area say; I can't, however, analyze whether they are correct. If I talk with someone about climate change, I cite to climatologists whom I have read about. They could be wrong, but I have know way of challenging them so I go with what seems to be the majority opinion. That, of course, can be wrong. I am reading a book about the rise of eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; that became a well accepted "science" that is now totally discredited.

I think one issue with "experts" is simply the type of knowledge that you are talking about. People talk about foreign policy experts, but there really is no such thing. There are people that have a lot of information about foreign policy issues, but it's not the type of knowledge that you can make reliable predictions about-although many people on TV act as if it is. That's where, I think, experts and expertise get a bad name. There were plenty of experts that thought it was a good idea to fight the Vietnam War.
5:40 PM Dec 9th
Steven Goldleaf
No, that puts it pretty well. Is Bill James a baseball writer or a crime writer? May he be both, please? And much else besides? Thank you very much. I think Fauci can be a scientist any time he chooses to wear that hat, and I suspect that if he ever decided to write a memoir about growing up in Bensonhurst, he would be a pretty good memoirist. Do memoirists, experts, and scientists serve different functions, perform different tasks, reach different audiences? Duh. I find Bill's distinction between the separate roles to be a fine one, and a self-evident one, but I don't find it definitive, just a reminder that scientists are speaking, generally, to other scientists on very specific matters that they have themselves explored in depth while experts speak generally to the public about matters that they have synthesized from the work of others.
10:34 AM Dec 9th
You asked (rhetorically), "Is Anthony Fauci an expert or a scientist?"

Well, what does he spend his time doing? If he spends his time analyzing the findings of others and distilling his analyses into opinions and recommendations, he is an expert. If he spends his time examining and testing the available evidence firsthand, in the field, he is a scientist.

In my view, a guy like Fauci is an expert who used to be a scientist, an expert with a scientific background. I don't know if that makes anything clear or just muddies the waters a little further.
9:20 AM Dec 9th
Steven Goldleaf
DREW ECK, are you quite sure you didn't have a cassette tape of the Car Talk show in your vehicle?
5:44 PM Dec 8th
Great read Steven! I’ll ramble a bit here. I believe a lot of people assign the tag ‘expert,’ to someone who knows more, or appreciably more, about a subject than they do. ‘Self-described’ experts will often turn that around and assume the status of expert because they know more on a subject than the person or group they’re speaking with. I think the general public becomes very comfortable in their own knowledge and then are apt to rely on friends and acquaintances with more knowledge on certain subjects. Experts relieve the obligation of doing the work themselves. As you say, though, experts will often become ‘less’ expert depending on the company they keep. Some people might consider me an ‘expert’ on rock music and specifically, the music of Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been following him since mid-1975, and have been to over 200 Springsteen shows, mostly within ten rows of the stage. But... within the circle of ‘People who go to Springsteen shows,’ my 200 is waaaay down the line. To them, I’m just another fan. My preferred sport is Athletics... Running. Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field, Cross Country, Road Racing. Casual observers won’t put in the effort to learn more about these sports, so, if there’s ever a call for, even basic advanced, knowledge, I ‘become’ the expert. I’ve often observed to friends at track meets that the one thing most everyone in the stadium has in common, is that they consider themselves experts (And mostly have a group of acquaintances who do as well).
Now, my favorite Click & Clack moment: I listened to the show on Saturday afternoons, driving into work. One day, I found a parking space and shut the show off to go into work. When I was going home, some 11 or 12 hours later, I turned on the car and a repeat of the show was at the exact sentence where I had turned it off earlier.
9:38 AM Dec 8th
Loved your descriptions of Car Talk--you captured the show's goofiness vividly. A couple of years ago I used to visit Cambridge for work periodically and eventually I noticed a little window on the second floor of the building that houses the Curious George book and toy store on a corner facing Harvard Square. Painted on the window is the name of the law firm ostensibly occupying the premises: Dewey, Cheatem and Howe, which of course is the law firm that represented Car Talk.
9:23 PM Dec 7th
Thanks for this article - my Dad always listened to Car Talk and I wound up liking it as a result. I can remember working at a pizza place in college and I would open on Sunday mornings and turn on Car Talk and then Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me to listen to while I proofed the dough. I love the show so much I've purchased and archived probably the 100 or so best shows I've heard. Like most comedy duos, the "meh" stuff outweighs the great stuff by a large quantity, but their best 200-250 or so shows over the 25-or-so years they were on are pure comedy gold.

Also - thank you for expressing confusion over Bill's definitions of experts. I've always wrestled with his perspective on this subject, and I think part of it is that in his mind these terms are extremely well-defined but, as apparently is the case with you, in my mind things are significantly more muddy. I get the gist of what he means - scientists should always be questioning - but in the course of a lifetime of questioning things, there are some things you will repeatedly fail to disprove, thus gradually accumulating real knowledge. Knowledge that is still subject to further revision and questioning, but knowledge (at least with respect to the current level of human understanding in that area) all the same.

And if, in so doing, you have become more knowledgeable on that subject or in that area than 99% of the people on the planet, I think that makes you an expert, regardless of the fact that you are going to simultaneously continue to pursue additional questions and research. Bill doesn't really see it that way and, like you, I've come to realize that arguing in "Hey Bill" is a fool's errand, not least of which because Bill gets as many characters as he likes to explain his position and try and make it clear, while we're reduced to a limited input.
7:51 AM Dec 7th
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks for those reminders and pointers--I used to listen to a show called something like "Star Talk," though I haven't heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson's take on it. The show I watched in the mid-eighties was hosted by a funny little fellow named Jack Horkheimer--it was a weekly show that told you what would be going on in the night sky in the coming week, and made me into an annual "Tears of St. Lawrence" meteor-shower watcher every August for a while. I associate that show with the mid-1980s because that was when I bought my first post-grad-school TV as well as my first car, and published my first piece in Bill James Abstract, and watched the Mets win the World Series as my first child was born (and nearly named "Mookie" in celebration). Speaking of baseball, I wonder which sentences are missing in this article above where I start a paragraph musing about experts in baseball, followed by a mysterious gap before I move on to another topic entirely. Looks like there was something there that I moved around, or erased, Now lost forever. Oh, well....

If as a scientist, you're asked about something, you should never stop questioning the completeness of your answer, but most times as an expert you're being asked implicitly and explicitly sometimes, to give your answer in a few simple words for a lay audience. Is Bill's complaint that, when they're asked to render expert testimony, they're necessarily less than complete and less than qualifying? Seems a little unfair to ask someone to do something and then to criticize him for doing it.
3:57 AM Dec 7th
They started their show with number 8701. The first two digits represent a year aired and the last two digits represent a number for that year. They appear to have continued renumbering the reruns.
And there is a show called "Star Talk" with Neil deGrasse Tyson
which does have some of the silliness of Car Talk.
9:41 PM Dec 6th
I sometimes listened to the show when driving and probably know as much about cars as you do, but I liked the show. They were fun to listen to for some reason.

Bill's point to me is as a scientist you should never hesitate to question anything, even your own studies you done years ago. Sort of like Earl Weaver's "It is what you learn after you know everything that is important."
4:47 PM Dec 6th
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