Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 1;   January 4, 2012:

How to Reject Expert Opinion: II

by

When groups of decision makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?
Space Shuttle Columbia during the launch of its final mission

Space Shuttle Columbia, during the launch of its final mission, STS-107, on January 16, 2003. The vehicle and all aboard were lost on reentry on February 1. An inverstigation board was convened, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), and among their findings was identification of a cultural pattern within NASA that led to mission managers systematically rejecting the advice of safety professionals. The CAIB had expected to find safety deeply involved at every level of Shuttle management, but it found instead that: "Safety and mission assurance personnel have been eliminated, careers in safety have lost organizational prestige, and the Program now decides on its own how much safety and engineering oversight it needs." Other priorities were found to outweigh safety, among them budgetary and political factors.

In your organization, you might discover that factors that are supposedly secondary actually are dominant. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Rejecting advice from an expert in the domain in question can be tricky, especially if it was solicited. Tricky it may be, but human beings are oh so inventive. Here's a short catalog of techniques advice rejectors use to save themselves from victory and insert themselves between the jaws of defeat.

Assert that the problem at hand is unique
Assertions of uniqueness help rejectors by narrowing the field of qualified experts, potentially to zero. But even if all experts can't be eliminated, and advice cannot be avoided, asserting that the problem is unique can justify rejecting the advice.
Uniqueness claims can center on almost anything. Examples include technology, unusual group dynamics, physical or financial scale, legal or international political issues, cultural clashes, and complexity.
Sow suspicion of the motives of experts
This tactic is most useful with respect to a specific expert, because research about the character and past activities of the expert can reveal material that can discredit or disqualify him or her. It almost always works, because everyone has a past, and the past can be "spun."
Ruling out experts who have worked for competitors is a favored approach, because most have done so. Experts who have taken public positions on issues, and then changed those positions as they gained more experience, or as conditions evolved, might be doubted for having changed. Paradoxically, it is the expert who has never changed a public position who is the least likely to be able to adapt to changing conditions.
Attack the characters of the experts
Once the list of potential Rejecting advice from an expert
in the domain in question
can be tricky, especially if
it was solicited
experts emerges, rejectors can begin to question the character and/or the expertise of the experts. Their goal is to disqualify any expert who might effectively threaten the rejectors' agenda.
Experts can be faulted for youth and lack of experience; for age and outmoded expertise; for excessive fame, fees, and caseload; for inadequate fame and inexperience; or for past forensic activity. Almost any charge is possible.
Seduce with simplicity
By claiming that the problem confronting the group is actually very simple, and susceptible to "common-sense approaches," the rejector attempts to seduce the group into believing that the expert's advice is at least unnecessary and possibly irrelevant.
Claims of simplicity often include ridicule of those who advocate more nuanced views of the problem. If solving the problem is actually beyond the group's abilities, claims of simplicity, asserted confidently enough, can be very effective because of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. [Kruger 1999]

Ironically, groups tend to be more susceptible to these tactics in the context of more difficult problems. The greater their dread of the problem, the more welcome is the rejector's message that experts are unnecessary, or that they have little to contribute. Rejection of advice is most likely when advice is needed most. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: On Advice and Responsibility  Next Issue

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For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "The Paradox of Confidence," Point Lookout for January 7, 2009; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Wishful Significance: II," Point Lookout for December 23, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016; and "Risk Acceptance: One Path," Point Lookout for March 3, 2021.

Footnotes

[Kruger 1999]
Justin Kruger and David Dunning. "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77:6 (1999), 121-1134. Available here. Back

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