The prophet motive

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By Tony Samson

THE TV interview format has become quite a staple. These are now accompanied by visuals like graphs, charts, picture windows in the background with trees and moving traffic, and videos of people walking fast along the sidewalks to enhance the drabness of talking heads. The interviewer features a designated resource person to provide some expertise on the topic at hand.

Not only are such experts supposed to explain the jargon and context of any topic, say, on economics, they are also asked to give forecasts on GDP growth, tourist arrivals, exchange rate of the peso, inflation, stock market prices, and the property market. And they unhesitatingly oblige. Seldom do they demur — that’s not my area of expertise.

But how are these experts chosen to serve as resource persons? Is the claimed expertise vetted by an objective process, like an exam? (What are the components of GDP?) Is there a group that bestows legitimacy on an interviewee’s expertise, like maybe “Experts R Us”?

Certain areas of knowledge require formal education such as medicine, engineering, or law. These disciplines/careers involve at least a four-year academic preparation and require passing government tests to be bestowed a title. The method ensures a minimum level of knowledge on a subject. Even here, a civil rights lawyer may not be able to explain the legal aspects of mergers and acquisitions. Neither can an obstetrician explain the dementia of public officials.

Softer areas like political analysis, film criticism, writing, or physical fitness rely on a mix of reputation, word of mouth, work experience, citations, dissertations, awards, and taste. Such porous standards allow the glib ones to claim appropriate knowledge, needing only the endorsement of someone known to the production assistant of the talk show.

As a resource person, it is important to appear to know what you are talking about. The ability to dazzle requires the dispensing of a fair amount of male cow manure.

Let’s take a presumptive expert on digital marketing. It is not necessary for her to understand concepts, only to confidently use buzz words like condiments to spice up an otherwise bland piece of meat. The farther off from ordinary English something strays, the better. Thus, “share of market” may be too readily understood. It’s better to use “big data” and “customer insighting” in one sentence. While these sound like ordinary words, they will seem unfamiliar when combined to come up with unrelated meanings.

More often, resource persons on TV hew to political analysis. Somebody with the appropriate jargon can talk about random samplings and share of mind, the effect of perception on reality, and how to address a drop in “positives.” This talking head, usually from academe, is identified in the character generator crawling below his face as a “political analyst.” If he is insistent, he can even choose his own of “political strategist” to achieve credibility with potential clients.

Claims of expertise in soft fields are not as life-threatening as feigning mastery of brain surgery in a hospital. No life is at risk if a worthless opinion is proffered on national TV. The illusion of knowledge can even be entertaining.

TV moderators don’t mind guests losing their cool. Ironically, it is the most knowledgeable and informed guest who is so overwhelmed by the patent ignorance of his co-panelists that he can comes across as incoherent. Frustration with non-experts can render the truly conversant guest apoplectic and yes, discombobulated. He then gets to look like the blubbering idiot in the group of ignoramuses.

The hardest to catch are the prophets of boom who exhibit the enthusiasm of a used car salesman. They back up their forecasts with stats — 20% of new office buildings ready for occupancy in three years have already been locked up. Follow-up question: At what prices?

What is the motivation of the faux expert for this version of a con game? The illusion of expertise can translate into commercial consultancies. The false prophet can have a financial motive after all.

The poseur manages to get invited again and again on TV to offer his voodoo analysis. However, repetition, especially of the same jokes, in different programs (with the same audience profile) can send this resource person to the sidelines. He resurrects himself much later for his fake expertise, also known as artificial intelligence. Now, there’s another topic to sink his teeth into. It just takes machine learning.


Tony Samson is chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.