"An expert is an ordinary man away from home giving advice."
-- Oscar Wilde
"[I]t is rare to find a man who believes his own thought...As nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing, so nothing is more rare in any man than an act of his own. Any work looks wonderful to him, except that which he can do. We do not believe our own thought; we must serve somebody; we must quote somebody; we dote on the old and the distant: we are tickled by great names; we import the religion of other nations; we quote their opinions; we cite their laws...every man is a borrower and a mimic, life is theatrical and literature a quotation..."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society And Solitude
Source: Christopher Cerf & Victor Navasky, The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium On Authoritative Misinformation.
Our world is populated by "experts" of every caliber and kind. There are numbers-crunchers and statisticians, seers and futurists, self-help gurus and prophets, moralists and cassandras. There are those who know the government inside and out and those who fancy themselves as "terrorism experts." There are TV men, armchair pundits. There are medical specialists, dietitians, exercise know-it-alls, herbalists, and relaxation and deep-breathing shamans. There are those who are paid handsomely to dispense advice -- to government officials and corporate executives, to celebrities and the lay public. There are self-described experts on the nature of wealth-getting and power, who spend their adult life telling others how to get it and worship it. There are "experts" on relationships, "experts" on communication, "experts" on the opposite sex, on dating, love, romance, happiness. . .
Everyone loves the expert. In a hectic, fast-paced world in which time is ever scarce, it's easier to take the expert's word for it than to be sceptical and undertake one's own laborious researches. There's a psychic comfort in believing that something must be so because an important someone has said it's so. Imagine how chaotic our world would be if our first instinct always were to be incredulous -- if, upon hearing somebody say anything, we shouted, "Prove it! Cite your sources! Show me the evidence!" It would be a more thoughtful and philosophical world if also a less smoothly functioning, more disagreeable, more insecure one.
How often are the experts wrong? Not wrong in the sense of having made an honest mistake, a slightly errant calculation or bad prediction, but embarrassingly, unforgivably wrong? According to journalists Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, the answer is startlingly often. A few years ago they cobbled together a compendium of what they called "authoritative misinformation." Their book, The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium On Authoritative Misinformation, chronicles the blunders and gaffes of experts going back centuries. The volume is over 400 pages, copiously footnoted, and packed with interesting tidbits and humorous anecdotes. "Our research," the authors note, "has yielded...thousands of examples of expert misinformation, disinformation, misunderstanding, miscalculation, egregious prognostication, boo-boos, and occasional just plain lies."
If there's a moral here, it's not that expertise should be instinctively dismissed as a sham, but rather that our powers of scepticism should never be relaxed -- even when a redoubtable authority is saying things that are distinctly pleasing to our ears.
-- Tim Ruggiero
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "[W]e cannot name one considerable poem of his that is likely to remain upon the thresh-floor of fame...We fear we shall seem, to our children, to have been pigmies, indeed, in intellect, since such a man as Coleridge would appear great to us!" -- London Weekly Review, June 1828
Charles Dickens: "We do not believe in the permanence of his reputation...Fifty years hence, most of his allusions will be harder to understand than the allusions in The Dunciad, and our children will wonder what their ancestors could have meant by putting Mr. Dickens at the head of the novelists of his day." -- Saturday Review, London, May 8, 1858
Gustave Flaubert: "M. Flaubert n'est pas un ecrivain." (Mr. Flaubert is not a writer). -- Review of Madame Bovary, Le Figaro, 1857
Herman Melville: ""[Moby Dick] is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. Mr. Melville's Quakers are the wretchedest dolts and drivellers, and his Mad Captain...is a monstrous bore." -- The Southern Quarterly Review, 1851
Henry James: "It is becoming painfully evident that Mr. James has written himself out as far as the international novel is concerned, and probably as far as any kind of novel-writing is concerned." -- William Morton Payne, writing in The Dial in 1884.
James Joyce: "I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire...The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first-rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky." -- Virginia Woolf in her diary, September 6, 1922.
John Milton: "If length be not considered a merit...[Paradise Lost] has no other." -- Poet Edmund Waller, 1680.
Walt Whitman: "Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics." -- The London Critic, 1855.
"When a woman becomes a scholar there is usually something wrong with her sexual organs." -- Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in 1888.
"Nothing could be more anti-Biblical than letting women vote." -- Harper's Magazine editorial, November 1853.
"Direct thought is not an attribute of femininity. In this woman is now centuries...behind man." -- Thomas Edison, "The Woman of the Future," Good Housekeeping, October 12, 1912.
"Biologically and temperamentally...women were made to be concerned first and foremost with child care, husband care, and home care." -- Dr. Benjamin Spock, quoted in 1979.
"A period novel! About the Civil War! Who needs the Civil War now -- who cares?" -- Editor of Pictorial Review turning down prepublication offer to serialize Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind (1936).
"We doubt...whether this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time." -- T.S. Eliot, then a Faber & Faber editor, rejecting George Orwell's Animal Farm for publication in Britain (1944).
"There is not much demand for animal stories in the U.S.A." -- Dial Press, rejecting Orwell's Animal Farm in 1944.
"Scruples is a ridiculous title. Nobody will know what it means. We've got to get Crown to change it." -- Howard Kaminsky, after Warner Books purchased the rights to Judith Krantz's novel, June 25, 1981. [The paperback edition of the book, title intact, sold over 5 million copies.]
"I am apt to suspect...all the other species of men...to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilization of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation." -- David Hume, quoted in 1766.
"Negro equality! Fudge! How long, in the Government of a God great enough to make and rule the universe, shall there continue knaves to vend, and fools to quip, so low a piece of demagogism as this." -- Abraham Lincoln, quoted in 1859.
"The major cause of American Negroes' intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin and thus not remediable to a major degree by improvements in environment." -- William Shockley, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, quoted in 1980.
"Virtually all Japanese are short. Japanese are seldom fat; they often dry up as they age. Most Chinese avoid horn-rimmed spectacles. Japanese walk stiffly erect, hard-heeled. Chinese more relaxed, have an easy gait. The Chinese expression is likely to be more kindly, placid, open; the Japanese more positive, dogmatic, arrogant. Japanese are hesitant, nervous in conversation, laugh loudly at the wrong time." -- From a Time article, December 22, 1941
"Among the really difficult problems of the world, [the Arab-Israeli conflict is] one of the simplest and most manageable." -- Walter Lippmann, newspaper column, April 27, 1948.
"To kill a man will be considered as disgusting [in the twentieth-century] as we in this day consider it disgusting to eat one." -- Andrew Carnegie, 1900.
"People are becoming too intelligent ever to have another big war. Statesmen have not anything like the prestige they had years ago, and what is educating the ordinary people against war is that they are mixing so much. The motor-car, radio and such things are the great 'mixers'...I believe the last war was too much an educator for there ever to be another on a large scale." -- Henry Ford, The American Scrap Book, 1928.
"It is unfortunate that high officials of the Indonesian Government have given...circulation to the false report that the United States Government was sanctioning aid to Indonesia's rebels...[T]he United States is not ready...to step in and overthrow a constituted government. Those are the hard facts." -- New York Times Editorial, May 9, 1958.
"Because of the greatness of the Shah, Iran is an island of stability in the Middle East." -- President Jimmy Carter, December 31, 1977.
"Any realistic sense of the world today leaves it clear that there isn't going to be any German reunification this century, nor probably in the lifetime of anyone who can read this." -- Flora Lewis, The New York Times, September 7, 1984.
"Bill Clinton will lose to any Republican who doesn't drool on stage." -- The Wall Street Journal, October 30, 1995.
"[Semen] descends principally from the liver." -- Vincent of Beauvais, French philosopher and scientist, in Speculum Naturale.
"A great portion [of semen] cometh from the brain." -- Ambroise Pare, French physician and surgeon, in De hominis generatione.
"When the habit [of masturbation] is discovered, it must in young children be put a stop to by such means as tying the hands, strapping the knees together with a pad between them, or some mechanical plan." -- Ada Ballin, From Cradle To School: A Book For Mothers, 1902.
"Russian women are never more pleased than when receiving a drubbing at the hands of their husbands." -- J. Richardson Parke, Human Sexuality: A Medico-Literary Treatise of the Laws, 1906.