• Sat
  • Dec 27, 2014
  • Updated: 7:36pm
Lai See
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 1:43am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 1:43am

Trust me - I'm an expert, but even experts can get it wrong


Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.

Lai See has come under a certain amount of criticism from recent reader comments for our views on subjects such as the appropriateness of the government's proposals for an incinerator, and topics such as global warming.

These are technical matters in which Lai See has no formal qualifications. That being the case, should we then just defer to the experts in such matters?

This is an old argument but it bears revisiting. We should remember that experts get it wrong. In his book Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — and How to Know When Not to Trust Them, David Freedman writes that some two-thirds of the findings published in leading medical journals are refuted within a few years, and goes on to cite numerous examples where the experts are wrong.

Yet we continue to believe experts. Lai See generally, though not always, defers to them given their superior knowledge in their area of expertise. However, it is not unusual for experts to disagree among themselves.

But human nature is a funny thing. There have been numerous studies that show that despite being told something by an expert, people will only accept it if it chimes with their own beliefs. The corollary of this is that when looking for support for their views people are more or less consciously drawn to experts whose views coincide with their own.

Quite often when seeking advice we go to people who we know will give the advice we want to hear.

In his book the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn makes the point that even with respect to the evolution of science, the truth of an idea or theory is not always on its own sufficient for it to become accepted. Ideas, scientific, social or political, come to us through people within a certain social milieu. Indeed, it is sometimes the charisma of a theory's proponent rather than its truth value that propels it to acceptance. This is not to say all experts should be disregarded but should be subjected to healthy scepticism, since we don't know their prejudices, vested interest, political views or other factors that might colour their "expertise".

Lai See has never claimed to be an expert in matters such as incineration or climate, we just don't like to have the wool pulled over our eyes by so-called experts.


Trading places

Changes are afoot in the finance industry, with cut-backs in commodities, disenchantment with investment banking and the continuing off-shoring.

Head-hunters in Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney say that an increasing number of finance professionals are making radical career changes, efinancialcareers reports.

Tougher regulations and the increased power of compliance officers in banks diminished prospects for quants specialists. So, instead of offering ideas to the traders in the front office, many quants are now opting for the middle office and risk management, the website says.

In addition, with the big banks trimming the number of managing directors over the past year, a number of these displaced persons are taking jobs as consultants with small local banks in developing markets such as Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam.

"Their assignments include developing business strategies, compliance frameworks and trading platforms," Pan Zaixian, a general manager of Singapore search firm Kerry Consulting, told the website.

Disgruntled investment bankers are also leaving to take advantage of the recent uptick in in-house M&A jobs with companies planning acquisitions.

These are mostly junior and mid-level positions and alas often entail a drop in salary.


Have you got any stories that Lai See should know about? E-mail them to howard.winn@scmp.com


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This article is now closed to comments


Checking the credibility of the source is the fundamental duty of a journalist reporting on any subject.
What Mr. Winn does not understand is that, while no thoughtful person would question the need to question expert opinion, it is his reliance of a non expert who has no qualification and a body of work in climate science, and the circumstance such a person gave his opinion that made Mr Winn lost his credibility as a journalist.
On his passion and interest in Hong Kong's waste management policy and the use of various technologies, Mr. Winn should seriously look into the qualification, education, and professional experience of his sources. Are they qualified professionals , have a body of work and experience as an executive managing complex problems in general, a body of work in waste treatment technology and practice ? Or are they just a bunch of well-intentioned wild-eyed zealots who are not in a position to make cross-the-board charges and criticism on subjects that they know little about ? Do they just give you only a one-sided point of view but not the others ?
There were many opinions expressed in SCMP on incinerators and Hong Kong waste management practices. If you read them carefully, you will find those who present specific charge and criticism with analysis, facts, numbers, date, etc. Then there are those who make charges and criticism incoherently with no supporting evidence and sources. Mr. Winn is descending to the later category.
Disclaimer: I know nothing about incineration technologies and expect the government to scrutinize the opinions of various experts to come up with the most appropriate solution for our collective benefit without any form of bias or corruption influencing their decisions. Having said this, my objection to the mega incinerator project, regardless of the technology employed, is to question why we should invest in such a grandiose project that is more than a decade away when there are other approaches that can be more expeditiously employed thus, perhaps, mitigating the need for such a large scale project.

Since the handover our govt. has been too focused on the mega projects: Tamar govt. palaces, WKCD, the bridge to nowhere, HSR to almost nowhere, a cruise terminal used a few times per quarter (also located in the middle of nowhere), tourists attractions everywhere and now the third runway and the incinerator (also touted as a tourist attraction). All the while kicking the can down the road on day to day issues that are filed under "too hard to solve" such as air quality.

Back to waste management: instituting a comprehensive waste management program starting with separation of waste streams into organic, recyclables, hazardous and "other" as the first step. If this was done aggressively, would here still be a justification for a mega incinerator? Or would smaller units distributed across HK be more suitable (similar to Tokyo)? Can govt. answer these non-expert questions?
Japanese fans cleaned up after themselves after their world cup game, that shows the individual commitment they have to the environment. It's not just the tech that they have employed, but also the mentality.
Even if Hk deploys these smaller scale incinerators, can we rely on people themselves to separate their waste such that the incenerators are working optimally?
I have no desire for Mr Winn to have the wool pulled over his eyes, and sure, expert opinion must continued to be scrutinised by journalists and others. Hurray for that; nobody is arguing we just submit mindlessly to technocracy.

My problem lies with Lai See arguing in favour for a complex, barely tested incinirator technology without much or any evidence that this is indeed feasible and suitable for Hong Kong.

Perhaps it is indeed a great idea. But as a reader, there is no way I can arrive at that conclusion solely based on Mr Winn's one-sided opinion pieces. So again, I call on the SCMP to invite experts from the EB and alternative sources to shed some light on this issue. A frank exchange of letters or a couple of opinion pieces about this issue can't be that hard to organise.

Having the wool pulled over one's eyes by an expert is one thing, having it done by an non-expert journalist is even worse.

PS. I am all for healthy skepticism, but Mr Winn's climate-change denial is far, far beyond that. Mind you, he is not discussing the precise importance of various causes, nor just quibbling about the exact pace and projections. He has repeatedly questioned whether it exists at all, and even if it does, flat out denies the idea that man-made causes could have anything to do with it.

Scientifically, that is right out there with creationism and claims that the world is flat. This makes me more skeptical of his other 'skeptical' views as well.
I would love to see that photo...

And while I share your suspicions regarding the motives of the EB officials, the burden of proof does lie with proponents of alternative solutions to show that these are a feasible and the best choice for Hong Kong.
As to the credibility and honesty of so-called experts in climate science, two of the supposed leaders in the field, Michael Mann and Kevin Trenberth, falsely claim to be Nobel Prize winners.
Mr Winn, you should have a strong word with the subs or picture editor - whomsoever chose the photo at the heading of the column. Shooting a power station cooling towers contra jour is an old warmist trick to give the impression that what is, in fact, water vapour, is some noxious pollution.
You are wrong
Science has gotten it wrong as many times as it's gotten right. Many of the "scientific" discoveries relating to evolution were also debunked not long after they were published. I'm not gonna get into a debate with you on creationism as although I am a Christian, the premise behind the young earth model is moronic.
And I think we can lay the earth is flat criticism to rest now...it has been some 600 years.
The only bone of contention that I have about climate change is that it focuses too much on carbon dioxide and not enough on methane which is 10 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
In our ever transforming world, we have experts and we had experts. While relying on them, we must save some room for common sense to make sense of the progress of our time.
A position taken a decade ago for an incinerator technology invented then but unwilling to consider a later one is a highly a suspect of those officials. Common sense tells me someone is being lazy or worst, colluding with vendor or special interest or all.
Without critics, Hong Kong deserves what it gets. Most of the time the people get the short ends paying highly literally or with lives.
Remember the decades of delay of use of LPG fuel for taxis in Hong Kong? The opponents including a picture in SCMP with CY Leung sticking his head underneath a car proclaiming that there is no foul air. This took place during the time when Chan Fang On-sang was the Chief Secretary in the Colonial time in Hong Kong.




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