Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 52;   December 28, 2011: How to Reject Expert Opinion: I

How to Reject Expert Opinion: I


When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
Signers of the 1938 Munich Agreement

Neville Chamberlain (Great Britain), Edouard Daladier (France), Galeazzo Ciano (Italy), Adolf Hitler (Germany), Benito Mussolini (Italy), Joachim von Ribbentrop (Germany), and Ernst von Weizsäcker (Germany). These chiefs of state and diplomats would shortly sign the Munich Agreement (September 30, 1938), which gave the Sudetenland to Germany. In the run-up to the conference at which the agreement was signed, Neville Chamberlain and his inner circle adopted a strategy that assumed that Britain's diplomatic and political skills would be sufficient to prevent domination of Europe and certainly Britain by their adversaries, Germany and Italy. Chamberlain failed to consult with experts in the Foreign Office, and elsewhere in the government, who might have raised doubts about the wisdom of this strategy. Those who questioned the strategy were labeled as anti-Nazi and untrustworthy. Photo (cc) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173.

A fairly common pattern found in decisions that have led to major disasters is the rejection of expert opinion, which almost certainly degrades decision quality. Although this rejecting can be a mechanism that supports confirmation bias, it need not be — the rejecting can arise from many sources.

Knowing the tactics of rejection will help you detect and prevent inappropriate rejection of expert opinion, either by individual rejectors or by the group as a whole. Here's Part I of a collection of tactics groups use to reject expert opinion, emphasizing prevention of consultation.

Reject the idea of consultation
Because there's no need to reject an expert's opinion if the opinion can be avoided altogether, rejectors might actively suppress all attempts to consult domain experts. Motivations for suppressing consultation include concerns that the decision might go counter to the rejectors' own preferences, fears that their own status and expertise might be threatened, worries that malfeasance might become evident, and many more.
Arguments against consultation with experts can include concerns about delay, cost, confidentiality, or difficulty in vetting experts. As evidence that consultation is unnecessary, or of limited value, some will point to successful analogous decisions at previous times, or by other organizations.
Reject the foundations of the expert's the field of knowledge
This argument is also high leverage, because it has the virtue that if it works, it applies to all experts in the given field of knowledge. The tactic entails sowing doubts about the state of the field of knowledge that is the basis of the experts' expertise. Even if this tactic fails to prevent the consultation, those doubts can be useful later, as the rejectors try to limit the impact of the experts' recommendations.
Doubts about the state of the field of knowledge might be based, for example, on differences of opinions among experts; recent advances that demonstrate supposed chaos or uncertainty in the field as it was before recent advances; claims of inapplicability to the problem at hand; or even a knowledge-based "smear" campaign based on evident chaos or disorder in distantly related fields of knowledge.
Denigrate experts in general
Denigrating Arguments against consultation with
experts can include concerns about
delay, cost, confidentiality, or
difficulty in vetting experts
experts generally can serve two purposes. It can perhaps suppress consultation altogether, but if that fails, it can provide I-told-you-so ammunition for later rejection of the expert's opinion, if that becomes necessary.
Techniques usually entail raising existential questions about experts in the domain at issue. The goal is to show that "no so-called expert" can possibly help us because — for example — we are the experts because we're way ahead of everyone in the field; experts have an inherent conflict of interest and can't be trusted; or we can't reveal our true situation to anyone without putting our organization at risk.

In Part II, next time, we'll turn our attention the rejection mechanisms that help to dismiss experts' advice.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Reject Expert Opinion: II  Next Issue

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