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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In a nutshell / Want expert advice? Don't listen to experts

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THIS is the age of the "expert." I received an email this week from Experts Delivered, an organization that handles the public lives of experts, informing me what experts will be available in Winnipeg between now and the end of October. There are 13 of them, and that's just the ones handled by this company. Their expertise ranges from the inspirational to Training Difficult People to Peak Performance to Teamwork/Team-building and includes a one-armed man who is an expert in attitude, as one supposes he would have to be.

How these people qualify as experts, I am not entirely certain. Having had a book published seems to be the main qualification today, whereas it was once the case that intensive training and experience in the field in which you want to claim expertise was required.

In either case, when experts agree on something, they tend to think of it as "great minds think alike." Cynics are more likely to regard it as a case of "fools seldom differ."

Experts have made some whopping great mistakes. Dr. Spock revised his child-caring theories that had shaped two generations of American children under feminist pressures and to make them politically correct -- the kids be damned. Radio was considered by many to be a passing fad that had no future; X-rays were denounced as a fraud, in much that same way that the controversial "liberation" treatment for multiple sclerosis, which seems to work for some patients, has now been branded a scientific error.

Canadian MS victims should be grateful to the government of Saskatchewan for persisting in setting up clinical trials of the possible treatment despite the negativity of a group of European experts. It deserves at least a chance.

Here in Manitoba, we have just been reminded of the harm that experts can wreak when they let loose on an unsuspecting population. After the Second World War, a group of Manitoba government biologists -- wildlife experts -- decided that the Qamanirjuak caribou herd was declining and, in the 1950s, the Duck Lake Dene, who were native to the region and blamed for the decline, were moved. The caribou apparently mattered more than the natives did to southern whites.

The result was a savage devastation of the Dene people's culture and way of life. And then the experts realized they had been wrong, the caribou herd was perfectly healthy, but not before one-third of Duck Lake Dene had died in a single generation.

It may be true that fools seldom differ, but governments and a public that rely on experts rather than their own humanity and common sense are surely the most dangerous fools of all.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2010 H2

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