How to Be an Expert

Yesterday the blogosphere was buzzing about the Jon Stewart-Jim Cramer smackdown (if you missed it, see James Fallows). Via Memeorandum I found this article called “How much money would taking Jim Cramer’s advice have cost you?” The title pretty much tells the story.

Even when times were good CNBC and other “money” channels depressed me, so I’m far from a regular viewer, and I’ve seen only occasional blips of Cramer. But yesterday I wondered, “where does this guy come from?” I checked out his bio, and he did in fact make a lot of money as a hedge fund manager. He also has some background as a reporter. But his hedge fund success, I noticed, came during the late 1990s. You didn’t have to be a genius to make money in the late 1990s.

I put Cramer in the category of “unexpert expert.” These are people who somehow gained reputations in something and are considered experts, but if you check out their backgrounds, and what “wisdom” they actually offer, there’s nothing there. Most political “pundits” are unexpert experts, of course.

The prototype of the unexpert expert is William Bennett, who is considered an “expert” on morality in spite of his gambling addiction and the fact that his ideas about morality never advanced beyond Sister Gertrude’s third grade class at Our Lady of Perpetual Chagrin. All you need to be an expert is (1) your own certitude that you are one; and (2) an ability to project an aura of knowing what you are talking about (see Dick the Dick Cheney). Actual expertise is, of course, not necessary.