The Expert Problem

08.05.2015 By

From our latest discussion paper

Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger knew immediately that something was wrong. Birds filled the entire windscreen, pelting the aircraft like heavy hail, as a burning smell filled the cockpit from the jet engines. The plane suddenly lost forward momentum and started slowing down. Sullenberger knew the situation was critical—the plane had lost thrust in both engines at a low speed and a low altitude over New York City, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. Putting his hand on the side stick and invoking protocol for transfer control, he coolly stated, “My aircraft.” First officer Jeffrey Skiles immediately replied, “Your aircraft,” and the captain took over. After radioing air traffic control, Sullenberger realized that they’d never make it to LaGuardia or Teterboro. He contacted air traffic control again: We’re going into the Hudson.

Flight 1549 and its crewmembers are often held up as examples of highly trained professionals acting calmly under pressure. The plane had only been in the air for a minute and a half when it hit a flock of geese and it was only one minute later when Sullenberger made the call to land in the Hudson River—a decision that saved all 155 people on board and likely many others below. It was a remarkable display of expertise: in less time than it takes to brush your teeth, Sullenberger determined that the plane could not reach an airport, identified a workable solution, and then proceeded to glide the plane towards the river, and land it on water at over 200mph. The crew got everyone out of the aircraft safely. Sullenberger’s successful emergency water landing illustrates the value of experts.

Experts exist because we need to rely on others for knowledge and skills we don’t have, whether for haircuts, brain surgery, or maneuvering a failing plane. They provide comfort and certainty in a world that is often chaotic and some of them routinely save lives. However, in some cases, society might exalt experts too much. Not only do we frequently look to experts in situations where they are not necessarily warranted, we also often trust in individuals who are undeserving of this title.

Understanding how to think about expertise is important to making good decisions. With a better understanding of how and when to utilize experts, we may avoid wasting our time, money and other resources. It is therefore useful to ask: When are experts required? How can we ensure we select someone legitimate? Moreover, how does this apply to investment management?


Read the full discussion paper here.


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