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.

10 thoughts on “How to Be an Expert

  1. Bennett does have a background in philosophy, but his “expert” status comes from the fact that he was a major conservative political figure and as we all know the only “values voters” are conservatives. Those who care about the most vulnerable among us, who worry about the Earth, and who work for equal rights for ALL, well, we’re just godless socialists who care nothing for ethics. “Morality” is synonymous with abortion and we all know that there’s only one right answer in that very simple and clear moral issue and we’re on the wrong side, so that makes anyone on the other side automatically an expert in ethics.

  2. The mention of Bennett brings this passage from A.C. Grayling to mind:

    “The great moral questions – the most moral and urgent ones – are not about sex, drugs and unmarried mothers. They are, instead, about human rights, war and genocide, the arms trade, poverty in the Third World, the continuance of slavery under many guises and names, interreligious antipathies and conflicts, and inequality and injustice everywhere. These areas of concern involve truly staggering horrors and human suffering. In comparison to them, the parochial and largely misguided anxieties over sex, drugs, gay marriage and the other matters that fill newspapers and agitate the ‘Moral Majority’ in America and Britain, pale into triviality. It is itself a moral scandal that these questions preoccupy debate in comfortable corners of the world, while real atrocity and oppression exist elsewhere.” ~ A.C. Grayling, The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty, and the Good Life in the 21st Century

  3. maha,
    I took something slightly different away from the interview.
    Jon Stewart did an excellent job of interviewing Cramer. A far better job than almost any TV or print reporter has of interviewing anyone in the past 8+ years (Savage, Hersch, etc., excepted). At the point where most “professional” journalist’s would have gone onto another point, Stewart kept pressing. And not for laugh’s, but to get at the truth.
    It’s a sad commentary on our news media when the two best places to get news are on Comedy Central at 11 and 11:30pm. That Stewart and Colbert have become this century’s Huntley and Brinkely in America is a crying shame.
    Stewart is actually better than the present “60 Minutes” crew, who make me long for the days of Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, and a young Morely Safer and Leslie Stahl.
    And I’m afraid that this is not a problem that can be fixed anytime soon…

  4. My sister, on her second marriage after a lifetime of stormy and short-lived relationships, has a regular weekly spot on the evening news for a local channel down South as a giver of relationship advice. When she appears onscreen, her title is given as “Relationship Expert.”

    When she first interviewed for the job, she thought it was due to her masters in rhetoric and communication (have I mentioned she’s brilliant?) and that she would be giving inter-personal communication tips and techniques. Instead, because she’s terrifically photogenic (have I mentioned she’s gorgeous?) and no one wants to hear a lecture from a college professor on their Tee-Vee machine, the producers of the news changed her title and the central focus of her segment and — for what it’s worth — she has played along, qualifications be damned.

    Ultimately, my sister looks and sounds good onscreen and her viewing audience has little clue that even she will admit that she has no idea what she’s talking about. The Tee-Vee says she’s an expert and in this day and age that makes her an expert.

  5. c u n d gulag – My wife and I both thought Stewart was much better than anyone we’ve seen on the “real” news in a very long time. She said she’d love to see an interview like this on Meet the Press. The advantage, I think, is that Stewart, being a comedian and not a “professional” journalist, was free to repeatedly express his (and our) moral outrage and demand that Cramer answer for it. You’d never get away with that on a Sundary morning show.

    I’ve seen Tweety do this a number of times on Hardball, but no where near as well as Stewart. His research is impeccible, his writers are incredible, and his delivery perfect. It is indeed a shame that we have to go to Comedy Central for reliable news, but there it is.

  6. I’ve only seen clips of the Stewart KO on the Internets and the broadcast networks (ABC News did a biggish story on it Friday evening). That “interview” (or, if you prefer, service of truth followed by a wafer-thin mint) makes me sorry I don’t have cable. Seriously.

  7. Joan,
    Check it out on You-tube. Or, almost every Liberal/Progressive website has a link.
    Trust me, daaahhhhling, it’s worth it!

  8. I’m an expert at being a jerk.. and nobody can dare challenge my claim! My excellence in jerkdom is self evident.

    So Bill Bennett can expound on philosophy and also holds himself out as an expert in matters of morality?.. He sounds kinda like myself after I’ve swilled down a bottle of Midnight Express. But at least I can apologize for my stupidity in the morning.

  9. Go back to the EconF-U post and check out my comment (move fast, ’cause I doubt they’ll keep it up long). Everything the post says about Cramer recommending action in Apple and Bear Stearns is a lie. Completely unrelated to the objective truth of what Cramer said or did. He never told AAPL holders to get out of their stock, and he wasn’t even referring to Bear Stearns’ common stock in the clip EconF-U links.

    Cramer says a LOT of stupid things, but EconF-U really screws the truth pooch with their mendacious post.

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