This past week I was reading the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. I came to v. 20:
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
This salvo of questions should give us at least some pause. What is the shelf life of today’s “expert” advice? Where are yesterday’s experts? But surely the apostle goes too far. Has God really “made foolish” the wisdom of this world? How elusive could the truth be?
This past week I (not coincidentally) started an absolutely fascinating read called Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — And How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman, a journalist and contributing editor at The Atlantic.
In the Introduction Freedman writes:
“…this book is about why expertise goes wrong….we’re going to look at how experts—including scientists, business gurus, and our other highly trusted sources of wisdom—fall prey to a range of measurement errors, how they come to have deep biases that lead them into gamesmanship and even outright dishonesty, and how interactions among them tend to worsen rather than correct for these problems. We’re also going to examine the ways in which the media sort through the flow of dubious expert pronouncements and further distort them, as well as how we ourselves are drawn to the worst of this shoddy output.”
Freedman’s research would appear to be, well, damning, and it (unwittingly) lends credence to the Apostle Paul’s unqualified skepticism of human wisdom. With caution and keen self-awareness, Freedman marshals example after example of how key assumptions are left unrecognized in even the most highly esteemed research in a myriad of fields–with devastating results. For example, before researchers even begin the difficult task of interpreting the data, there is the million dollar question of which data are to be interpreted. He writes:
“…underlying these often authoritative- and confident-seeming conclusions is a rat’s nest of confusion and misdirection largely stemming from one big question: what do you measure? There are usually no obvious or standardized approaches to figuring out which data provide the most useful and reliable insight” (p. 9).
He then provides the following example:
“It might sound pretty straightforward, for example, to ask which hospital in a community provides the best care. But hospitals can be rated on any of a bewildering variety of considerations, including inpatient volume, staffing levels, readmission rates, university affiliations, costs of treatment, and specialty practices. Well, we could keep it simple and just look at death rates, as some experts do. Of all the things we’d like to see happen during a hospital stay, avoiding death is usually at the top of the list. But death rates don’t simply depend on the quality of treatment rendered by a hospital; they can also depend on how sick or old or poor the population served by the hospital is”–etc., etc. (p. 9).
But what makes Freedman’s work a truly interesting read is that he is self-critical.
In Appendix 4, entitled, “Is This Book Wrong?”, he wrestles with the question: Isn’t there something self-defeating about a book that cites expert research to disprove…expert research? His answer is fascinating, beginning with a story of how his father, a research chemist for Dow Chemical, kept a single page from a scientific journal article in a framed picture in his office at work. The article, published by another scientist, proved that conclusions that Freedman’s father had reached were in fact completely mistaken. Freedman recalls how, as a boy, he responded when he first learned of the significance of the framed page:
“Shocked and embarrassed for him, I asked why he would put such a thing on his wall. ‘It reminds me how easy it is to be wrong,’ he replied.”
He then admits:
“…to say that you don’t have to worry about my falling for expertise traps because I’m a journalist would be like a mugger offering the reassurance that she’s no car thief….I’ve probably spun, omitted, exaggerated, manipulated, and artfully selected facts and concepts in ways that bolster my case. That’s because I’m biased….”
But where does that leave Freedman? Is he able to discover the truth? Am I? Are you?
Paul’s fundamental argument is that human wisdom–what we might call “received wisdom”–is, ultimately, foolishness. But it is foolishness in the same way that a counterfeit $100 bill is “foolishness”: there is so much that is accurate, but the seemingly small number of inaccuracies (the presuppositions?) make all the difference in the world. According to Paul, we humans know enough to know how foolish the “experts” can be. That is why Paul is so deeply skeptical of human wisdom and abandons it for that which could never have been discovered by any human–namely, divine wisdom. That is, he utterly forsakes a commonsensical “received wisdom” for a highly counterintuitive revealed wisdom (something called the gospel). And he commends the same to us:
“Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise.” (1 Cor. 3.18).