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Why Experts Need Elites | Robin Hanson Interview Byte
On the compromises required to reform and innovate institutions
Robin Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University.1
Robin was at the event giving a talk on his thoughts and conclusions regarding brain emulations.
In our brief discussion, we talked about the relationship between experts, elites, and why the former requires the latter to get their ideas out into the world.
Below is the audio, and a transcript of our back and forth.
BA: Talk for a minute about where we're at right now.
RH: We're in the Berkeley hills, looking over what's going to be a beautiful sunset, at an expensive house, where lots of techie people are hanging out together, being aspirational. So what their pitch here is: come think about the future, think about the world you want to create and make, and let's all talk about how we're going to make it together.
BA: And you gave a talk at this event that we’re at, what was your talk on?
RH: The Age of Emulation; Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth which is a book I wrote about the future of brain emulation. I love these people, it's my sort of people, but I kind of see that what we're doing here is making our pitch that we should be treated as elites.
In our world, elites make the big decisions and most techie people are experts that advise elites, but they aren't usually in charge of things. We're pretending now to be in charge of things because we're not talking about how we're going to make a pitch to elites, we're talking about how we're just going to decide things, and it's just gonna happen that way; like technologists can just make things happen. In some sense, they can, but they usually do it through the mediation of elites.
And so experts often know there are elites, but they resent the existence of these elites, because they think they should be more qualified than they are. Expert talk and elite talk are just different kinds of talk. They're done in different ways. For example, at a conference, a speaker is often an expert, but then a panel is of elites because they're sort of in a chatty mode, like at a party. If you look back at the beginning of the pandemic, the experts had an opinion about travel restrictions and masks, and then all of a sudden, the elites talked all around the world, and they came up with a different opinion and then they told everybody what that was and we all did it that way. The experts just changed their mind and adopted.
Expert talk is more precise, more critical, more analytical, more willing to disagree. Elite talk tends to be more smooth, more flattery, more vague, more consensus building, more value oriented, more aspirational. That kind of talk tends to be what makes things happen in the world, they at least tend to run organizations.
The consensus of elites in an organization in the world is what makes the world happen and experts often think, “Why can’t I be part of that conversation? Why don't they listen to me, because I actually know stuff?”
BA: So how should experts be thinking about getting their ideas out into a broader array of people?
RH: If you resent the elites enough, you say, “I should be an elite”, and you try to get that status.
Nobel Prize winners, the first thing they do is they try to write op-eds. You might think, ‘Really, you worked all your life to be a PhD, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, and now you want to write op-eds?’
Well, the whole story is, yeah, because they think now they might be an elite.
Elites, the big shot people, they often want to be seen as experts, too. So the envy goes both ways.
It’s like in the TV show, The Crown, the Queen hangs with the horse experts, because she's really into horses, and she wants to hang with the horse experts and be treated as a horse expert as she can because she knows a lot about horses. And so they all talk together like horse experts, but, if they were to start talking about some Queen stuff, she would shut them down quick, because that's not their role.
Often, experts think, “Those elites though, those don’t look any better than me, I should be one of the members of them” and that's what the Nobel Prize winners are doing, trying to join them.
So one approach is, '“I will become an elite” but you don't realize just how many constraints there are and what it takes to be an elite. Often, it’s your pedigree, your family, how smooth you are, how well you dress; there's a lot of things it takes to be an elite, and maybe you don't have most of those things.
The other thing is finding an elite who will listen to you because many elites like to go slumming, and so then they can go slumming with you. They get it into their head, “Oh, I want to learn about this expert” and then they go find some experts to talk to, and that might be you, then you might talk to them; Now, unfortunately, when you talk to them, they won't hear exactly what you said. They'll translate it in their own way to some other thing.
You may be pissed that you can’t just talk directly, but sorry, that's your only voice to the world. They're your voice. They're the people who will take your ideas somewhere, if anybody will, because you're not allowed to.
BA: You said something yesterday about how elites are the gate keepers to bringing about innovation or reform in institutions where it needs to happen. Say a little bit more about that?
RH: I spent a lot of my time trying to write up proposals for how we could do things different. I've come to realize that as an expert, the world's just not interested. One of the reasons is, people just want an elite to pitch an innovation.
For example, most companies when they do an innovation that comes from academia or comes from Harvard or something like that, they want a very prestigious professor to be allied with. They’ll say that “We've got this Harvard person and he suggests do this and we do that.” If you're from a low rank school, they don't want to do this with you because what they're trying to do is get that prestigious association to back the innovation, otherwise, they don't have the defense to do it. So I don't give them the authority to do it, I’ll do a weird thing because I'm a weird person. Most people who do innovation, they need the backing of authority, the backing of prestigious people, the backing of elites, and that's the way they have to do it.
Much innovation in corporate America, it happens because management consulting firms tell them they're allowed to do something. The main thing a management consulting firm is is prestigious, right? They hire from the top schools, people right out of school who know nothing, and they put them on these projects.
BA: Would it be fair to say that it's outsourcing elitism, so that they don't need to incur the internal responsibility?
RH: Right. Say there's somebody in your organization who has something they want to do, but they themselves don't have enough prestige, they get this outside prestige to come and add prestige to their push, and now they can get people to do something. That's buying prestige. You as an expert aren't enough, you’ve got to buy the prestige to go with it.
BA: I know you've got to go, I appreciate you taking a few minutes to talk with me. How should the everyday person be thinking about putting ideas forward in ways that will bring about the positive changes they want to see in the world?
RH: I’ve been thinking about the ways we can have different institutions where experts would have more influence. I think people just generally shy away from that. Prediction markets are a way in which ordinary people participate in the market, and that number drives policy, and the fact that it's ordinary people in the market, driving the numbers, is what bothers a lot of people about using prediction markets. They think, “You people should talk to the elites, the elite should give the number and we should follow the numbers the elites give and you shouldn't cut out the middleman there.
BA: Robin, it's been a pleasure talking to you this weekend. Thank you for coming out.
RH: Nice to meet you.
BA: Nice to meet you as well.
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