Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Expert Advice

A couple of years ago, I was having some laptop performance problems, so I brought my computer in for servicing to a storefront consultancy not far from where I live.

The fellow who looked at my laptop would have made himself right at home answering a Hollywood casting call for geeks: bad hair, bad glasses  - thick-lensed bad glasses, little eye contact coming from behind those glasses, weird personality.

None of this would have mattered if it had seemed as if the guy knew what he was talking about. But I've worked with a lot of good techies over the years, and this guy was not giving off any sort of good techie vibes.

He did a few pro forma things, announcing what he was doing with a bogus and condescending voice of authority  - defragged the disk, cleaned out some cookies, a couple of other like things I could (and had) done for myself - then sent me on my way.

A hundred dollars lighter. A hundred dollars that I could have put toward the new laptop I ended up buying a month or so later.

This wasn't the first time something like this had happened. I'd called up plenty of customer service lines over the years and listened to (and followed) advice that I knew had nothing whatsoever to do with the problem I was having. Instead, the advice I was given seemed like a rote recital of possible remedies for some problem or another, read off a checklist in hopes that a) something would work at least temporarily, or b) I'd get discouraged and give up.

It's not just tech repairs, of course. The same thing happens with home repairs. Car repairs. And, presumably body repairs - although I think I've always been fortunate enough to get good medical advice.

Which led me to develop my rule of thumb when taking advice about things I don't know that much about: if the advice sounds as if really doesn't have anything to do with your understanding of the problem, it's probably not very good advice. Operating off sheer logic, combined with a bit of intuition, I have a pretty good track record for diagnosing bad advice.

Three problems always remain, however:

  • Just because the advice sounds plausible, doesn't mean it's any good.
  • I may know that the answer I'm being given isn't the right one, but I still don't know what the right answer is.
  • If the expert tells me that, in the course of his exploration, he's found other problems I didn't even know about, problems that were just about to rear up and nip me in the butt, I have no way of figuring out whether said expert is blowing smoke or not.

What's an advice seeker to do?

Apparently there's not much that you can do, other than rely on your own network to put you in touch with the great computer guy/electrician/mechanic/doctor.

If you're left to your own advice-getting devices, you'll run right smack into the fact that a lot of so-called experts just aren't very good.

So I wasn't surprised at all to read the results of a study that were written up in a recent NY Times article by Bill Wingell that detailed a study by grad student Henry Schneider that found that the majority of mechanics didn't get his car problems - caused by a deliberately loosened battery cable and removal of coolant - right.

Mr. Schneider was trying to answer a question that has occurred to pretty much all drivers who have ever been given the unsettling news that a car needs more repairs than they had expected: Does it really? Or is the garage just looking to make some extra money off me?...

At only 27 of the 40 garages did mechanics tell Mr. Schneider that he had a disconnected battery cable, the very problem to which he had pointed them by saying his car didn’t always start. Only 11 mentioned the low coolant, a problem that can ruin a car’s engine. Ten of the garages, meanwhile, recommended costly repairs that were plainly unnecessary, like replacing the starter motor or the battery.

I may be wrong here, but my sense is usually not that the folks doing the diagnosing are trying to rip you off for bigger, more costly repairs. This could be the case, but I tend to think that it's generally more a matter of the experts just not being any damned good.

That said, the temptation of those diagnosing a problem that they're going to fix to heap on, to keep on finding problems, is pretty great. That's not always a bad thing, of course - if the problems are real, or potentially real, and the solution is a real fix, not a fake one - or a fix with a jacked up price, just because they think you don't know any better.

(The article goes on to extend the argument to the health care system, stating that the same flaw exists because the same doctor's doing the diagnosing are doing the repairing. I'll cross that bridge if and when the orthopedic guy recommends surgery to repair my broken arm, which I don't think is going to happen given the leaps and bounds recovery I seem to be making.)

In any case, in the complex world we live in, surrounded by complex goods governed by complex systems, there's no way any of us are going to become unalloyed experts in everything. No way out of the fact that we're going to have to rely on plenty of expert advice.

Too bad there's no way of a priori separating out the good advice from the bad. Sp I guess I'll just have to stick to my own personal rule of thumb: if the expert advice doesn't seem to make much sense, it's probably no damned good.


Thanks to Rick T for pointing this article out to me.


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