When not to trust an expert

Input from subject matter experts is essential if you want to make quality decisions in a world which is overloaded with information. But how do you know you can actually trust the opinion of any particular subject matter expert? There is a simple method that might help you here: it is called the SETI test.

SETI stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI is a program where scientists, using sophisticated equipment, look for evidence of intelligent life outside our planet. It has been going on for more than 50 years. So far, no luck.

If you ask the scientists involved in SETI if intelligent life outside our planet exists, they would invariably tell you that it does. Based on this viewpoint, you could easily conclude that science overwhelmingly concludes that humans are not alone in the universe. After all, you have been polling the most knowledgeable people on this subject, haven’t you?

We’d still be wrong, because becoming an expert in any subject requires a passion for and belief in the subject. SETI scientists have become experts in extraterrestrial life signs, because they believe in it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t spend their entire lives trying to prove something that doesn’t exist. The same is true, for instance, for economists who believe in the predictive power of their economic models. They are all invested in the relevance of their calling.

This SETI thinking fallacy is dangerous for decision making in business. If you rely only on subject matter experts for predictive power, especially in a competitive subject field, you invariably rely on the true believers who have a passion for their subject. For instance, suppose while looking into opportunities to invest in energy, you turn to solar energy experts. No doubt these experts would make the business case for the great advantages of solar over any other energy source.

The way to overcome the SETI fallacy is to ask the following question to any subject expert: “what would need to happen for you to dismiss your recommendation?” This is the SETI test and subject experts who can’t answer this question suffer from groupthink. It has become a religion. If they can’t answer this question, actively start looking for evidence elsewhere. Use experts outside your field to get it.

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