We are living in an interesting age. From one point of view it’s being said that all authorities are gone, that there are no people left, who could designate values for wide range of people any more. No more people who could enjoy wide recognition and respect. On the other hand nowadays everyone can become well-know as an expert in some field. Literally everyone who will put some work into that, can become recognized as an authority in his or her field – maybe not by masses, but still by smaller group of his or her “fans”. Let’s have a look at dark site of this phenomenon – abuses that can occur in relations with experts.

First phenomena, happening quite often is casual incompetence sold through marketing in professional envelope. Someone just doesn’t have real skills or knowledge in particular field, and despite of that holds high-ranked position, or is recognized as authority. We can call him an “false expert”. This sort of person can seriously harm those who entrust him in their decisions.

Stanley O’Neal quitting President position of investment bank Merrill Lynch in 2007 had left $8,4 billion of losses, and accepted $160 million severance pay – which is 2 cents per each dollar he lost (his clients dollar). I don’t know how about you, but if I were Merrill Lynch client I would felt at least embittered. But it seems O’Neal himself didn’t have neither huge pangs of conscience, nor problems finding new job. Currently he works on the board of Alcoa Inc., world’s third largest aluminium producer.

That reminds me awarding Barack Obama with the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2009 – from one side result of skilful marketing of president’s people, from the other hand in my personal point of view Norwegian Nobel Committee scored an own goal if we’re talking about their image.

But incompetence in professional envelope is yet not the worst scenario. Much more dangerous situation we can have when expert really does have bigger knowledge and skills, but under the shell of serving clients is using them to their disadvantage and for his own profit only. In economy they say about information asymmetry – situation when one side of transaction is better informed than the other. This sort exert will do what is needed to preserve information asymmetry and use it for his own advantage at the expense of us. He may want us to feel completely incompetent comparing to him – thanks to that he will sell us more expensive product easier. We may call him “bad expert”.    

pigStrong example was World Health Organisation announcement of swine flu pandemic in June 2009. In January 2010 Council of Europe examined WHO proxies, accusing them of unjustified publicizing cases of falling ill. Council of Europe assessed pandemic announcement was unfounded and served pharmaceutical consortia profits. It doesn’t change the simple fact that vaccines had been sold and pharmaceutical consortia earned money selling product that nobody needed. Everything financed with taxpayers money.

Steven D. Lewit and Stephen J. Dubner in their book “Freaconomy” described process of manipulating house owners by their real estate agents. Agents use information asymmetry to make their clients sell house on lower price, to shorten time of their work on a given property. Authors also bring up research that says estate agents keep their own house on the market on average 10 days longer, to sell it for price on average 3% higher than their clients houses. For example if you want to sell your house in USA for 310 000 $, your agent will try to make you sell it 10 000 $ cheaper. You lose 10 000 $, but he loses only 150 $ of his or her commission, which is not much pay for 10 days of additional work. Spreading of Internet had lowered level of information asymmetry, but didn’t do away with it completely – agents still sell their houses for higher prices, than their client’s real estates.

In the era of Internet, when actually everybody can relatively easy build an image of an expert, it’s especially important to us to be sensitive to “false experts” and “bad experts”. Still to many people treat anyone as authority only because they saw her or him in TV (or on web portal). How can we learn to tell experts apart “false experts” and “bad experts”? Personally I have two rules that I follow: “show me the results” and “what kind human being you are”.

First says I consciously decide to ignore all traditional credibility indicators like formal education, media appearance, membership in trade organisations ect. and look only at concrete results that expert is able to deliver. Is there any information on the “references” page on his www describing measurable effects his clients achieved after they used his services? Is there anything concrete? Or are there rather “praise psalms”, saying how “cool guy” he is and how “good cooperation we had with him”?

Second rule is simply looking at casual human behaviours of that person. First warning signal is interrupting. Is “expert” showing basic respect for others – when we’re talking does he really listen or is he rather trying to push his point of view every now and then? When we’re asking a question does he answer it or ignore it and telling his own story? They say about “the secretary test” – “show me how do you treat your secretary and I will tell you who you are”. Saying in other words we can asses any person’s nature, looking on how does he treat people standing lower then him in hierarchy.

Of course this two rules will not protect us completely from meeting incompetence and deception, but they can serve as sort of basic filters or early warning system.