THE MYTH OF EXPERTISE
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
This is NOT my car, but it's really close. Mine was Midnight Blue Metalic.
This is the transcribed text of a recorded podcast published on April 3rd, 2020.
[0:26] Welcome. We are getting things launched here and I think that the best way to start this is to tell you a story. Now, this goes back at least 30 years ago. Stick with me on this because it's relevant; it applies to what we're going be doing here together. So, about 30 years ago, I had a car. It was a Mercedes 240C. To my mind, it was a cool car. My wife didn't like it that much but I thought it was a great car. If you imagine in your brain - you could look it up online if you want to – 197 Mercedes 240C, had straight six Mercedes engine, great little car. But if you close your eyes and envision the type of car a Bond villain might be driving in the 1960s, that's the kind of Mercedes this was - classic old school grill, chrome everywhere. It was dark midnight blue by the time I was done with it. I really enjoyed the heck out of this car. I enjoyed tinkering with it, fixing the chrome, trim. Anyway, so it was a fun project car and it was kind of fun to tool around in and it was great.
But, one day I'm driving… Now, we're living in California at the time, so I'm driving from a job assignment in San Diego, and I’m driving up back home to where Ellen and I lived in Orange County. There's a big open stretch. Once you leave Oceanside, California, you kind of go into this long open barren stretch which is Camp Pendleton. It's a Marine Corps base. That's where they do military testing and where they practice landing and storming the beaches and stuff like that, and it's got a gunnery range. It's military headquarters. It's a long open stretch of freeway, I-5, that runs along the coast and it's a nice straight drive, and so everybody's making that drive. I'm on that road, heading back, full speed, 80 miles an hour, 85 miles an hour on a California Freeway. And all of a sudden out of nowhere, big blue billows of smoke start pouring out of the back of my car. Never a good sign, right? Not a good deal.
[2:50] This isn't like a puff of smoke when you have a little bit of oil that's in your engine and a little puff of smoke comes out the back. Speaking of James Bond - this is like a James Bond smoke screen, like a spy car. I'm a hazard to navigation. Nobody can see around me, so I pull off to the side of the road and the car just stops smoking. But holy crap, what was that? I turned the car on again and instantly big blue billows of smoke start pouring out the back. I don't know what the deal is, but the car was performing fine.
I know that I'm near San Clemente. As you come out of Camp Pendleton, you approach San Clemente. I'm approaching San Clemente and I know that it's a kind of a wealthier section. There's got to be a Mercedes dealership there. I could pull in, and I could have this thing checked out. So I start the car and I pull back on into the freeway. Everyone's honking at me. I’m a hazard to navigation. People are mad at me, but I'm limping my car, but not limping. It’s accelerating great. I’m getting my car to San Clemente.
The Experts Appear
Sure enough, as soon as I crossed the border from San Diego County to Orange County in San Clemente, the first thing I see up on the right up on a hill is a Mercedes logo. I pull off and I pull into the dealership. I pull into the mechanic shop there, and I say, “Okay guy, something’s wrong with my car. Am I safe to drive?” They go look at my car, and he starts my car and he drives it around a little bit, and he sees the smoke and the guy comes in. Now, picture this, as well. Imagine in your mind, this guy. He's about six foot tall, he's wearing a big... This isn't a normal mechanic shop. I was driving an old, almost vintage Mercedes that I paid like 3 grand for, something like that. I'm not a rich guy at this point, but there's just a cool old car and this guy works on $100,000 cars all day. He's wearing that white lab coat. He's not wearing grease-smeared overalls. He's in a white lab coat, his hair's done perfectly, and he comes back into the waiting room and says, "Well Mr. Hardy, I’m afraid we have a problem.” He said, “I'm very familiar with this car. That engine 250cc straight six engine that Mercedes makes, it's one of their best engines. It's a great engine, but obviously there's a deep problem inside the engine. It's going to take at least $1500 to do because we have to pull the engine to get inside deep just to diagnose the problem.
If it's a ring or an internal seal, it's going to be hundreds more. This repair is going to be between $2000 and $3000 no matter what. And I know this car - that's about all the car’s worth. You've got to really decide if you want to fix the car.”
[5:53] I'm like 24 years old, 25 years old, something like that, and I don't have the money to buy a new car. I just got married; I got nothing. I'm just making everything work as it is. This is bad news, but I start thinking about it. I said, "You know, it doesn't make sense.” I said, “If this thing was a deep engine problem, if there was a blown gasket, I'd be hearing some noise, if there was a broken valve or a seal in there. If you go out and start that car, sir, if you step on the gas, you're going to squeal the tires in the parking lot. It doesn't feel like it's an engine problem.” And this is what the guy did, I swear. He looked at me and kind of nodded very seriously - that slow nod of somebody who's an expert who knows, he just knows that he's giving bad news and the person doesn't want to believe it. And he sweeps his arm, his right hand, he sweeps his arm up and points to the wall, and sure enough the wall is covered with plaques and certificates. Plaques and certificates as far as the eye can see, and he says, “I trained at Stuttgart, Germany. I have traveled all the way to Germany and trained on every engine. I've serviced this particular type of car hundreds and hundreds of times. I know there's a problem here, and I know it's bad news, but I'm afraid you have a tough decision to make.” And I said, “This doesn't make sense, it doesn't make sense to me.” And I said, "Well look, I'm going to try to get this car a little bit further on. Can you top me off with oil?” because the thing’s burning oil. It's burning as much oil as it’s burning gas at this point. He says, “Yes, Mr. Hardy, and we'll just put some oil in for you and we’ll just charge you the cost of oil. I understand the difficult situation you're in. But here we go.”
[7:43] So I get in my car and I start it up. Smoke comes out the back. First stop I make, I stop at an auto parts store, like a Napa Auto Parts that I see, and I just buy a whole cardboard flat of quarts of oil because I'm burning oil and if this thing goes dry, I know it's going to be a problem, but I buy a flat of oil. It's like a dozen quarts of oil, and I go on the freeway again. Everybody's honking at me, it's a terrible thing, I'm super embarrassed and I’m billowing smoke, and I pull into the next major area where I see another Mercedes mechanic. It's in a little town there called Lake Forest, right off the freeway. And I pulled in and it's like I'm repeating a scenario. The same thing happens again. Another guy in a white lab coat, the place is spotless. He's got plaques and trophies and crystal awards of superior service all over the place, and he tells me the same story, “Mr. Hardy, there is something desperately wrong with your car” and he says it's going to be thousands of dollars to fix this thing. And I said, “It doesn't make sense.” He said, "Okay.” I said, "Can I leave my car out here in your parking lot for the night?” He says, “Yes, Mr...” He's showing pity and compassion on me. I feel that this guy feels my pain because I don't have a lot of money. I can't afford to buy another new car right now. He knows I'm struggling with this, so out of compassion and pity, he allows me to keep my car parked in his lot.
A Trusted Expert Opinion
I walk across the street and I see Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and I rent a car. I drive home and I tell my wife. I say, “Honey, look…” I've got my normal guy. It's called a place in Huntington Beach. I don't know if it's still there anymore. This is 30 years ago. There’s a place called Hans Imports in Huntington Beach. They just work on Audi and Mercedes, and this guy Brice was my Service Writer there. He knew me, he knew the car, he knew it was kind of a little fun project car. Whenever I had a little extra money I would do something to it and he helped me get parts and stuff like that. So he knew the car. I thought, “Okay, I need to get my smoking heap of Mercedes wreck from Lake Forest, California to Huntington Beach where Brice is, and then I will solve the problem.” So I ask my wife, “Honey, can you drive me to pick up my car?” Of course she says yes; she's wonderful.
[10:18] So she picks me up and she drives me to the place in Lake Forest, the mechanics office. I start the car up and I'm staying off the freeway now, because literally this thing’s smoking like it's on fire. In fact, we're driving back side roads to get to Huntington Beach because they want to stay off the freeway and I'm pulled over by the police, not because I'm speeding or I ran a stop sign. The policeman is pulling me over in benevolence because he literally thinks my car is on fire. He pulls me over, and I tell the cop and show him that I'm consuming oil. I point to my wife behind me in her Mazda, and I said, "That's my wife, she's following me. I'm taking the car to the mechanic.” He says, “Okay, just as long as you’re not...” and he's looking under the car with his flash light, making sure I'm safe. But sure enough I pull in to Hans Imports in Huntington Beach, California, and the place is closed. It’s the middle of the night. I literally park it out front, take my car keys and throw them over the fence towards the front door, and then I have my wife drive me back home.
I take the rental car to work. Brice is there. He knows my car, he sees my car, he knows me, he has me on file. So he calls me, I expected about midday. He calls me, he says, "Hey Jeff, I saw your car, I see you dropped it off. Wow, we have a problem, dude. And it's really serious. I started it up and that billowing black blue smoke come spilling out the back. You’ve thrown a ring or you've blown an internal seal or a gasket or a bearing. This is going to be a serious problem. You know, maybe it's time, you’ve had a lot of fun with…” almost his exact words. I can hear it because it’s so terrible for me to hear these words. He says, “Jeff, I know you've had a lot of fun with this car, but maybe it's time that you parted it out because there's some valuable parts in this car. It's probably worth more as parts now than it is to try to save the car.” And I said into the phone, “Brice, it doesn't make any sense.” He says, “Jeff, I know you don't want to hear it.” This is the guy I’ve worked with for a year or so with my car. He's a decent guy. I know he means me well. I know he doesn't want me to be upset and he wants me to continue to be a customer. I know all that stuff, I could feel it. I could feel that he wanted to give me good service, but he believed in his soul, an expert who works on nothing but fine German automobiles, and he believed that I was in big trouble here. And I just started thinking about my car.
Thinking Through the Problem
[13:04] I'm not a mechanic. I hadn't worked on a car since auto shop back in high school, but I started thinking about my car and I said, “Brice, look, okay, right. If it's real, it’s real. If we have to do something, we have to do something, but do me a favor. Now when I stick my key in the door, it unlocks the doors.” He says, “Yeah, it's got power locks.” “It unlocks the trunk, it unlocks both doors.” He says, “Yeah, it's one of the first Power Lock systems ever invented. It was put in this generation of Mercedes.” “But it doesn't work electronically, it's not like it's a sound of electric motors and gears. I hear a sucking sound.” He says, “Yeah, it's got a vacuum pump. This car was very innovative. It has a vacuum pump in it and an actual vacuum reservoir that stores vacuum so that all the automated systems are run on this vacuum pump. Vacuum provides the power.” And I said, "Okay, well, where does it get the vacuum from?” He says, "Well there’s a vacuum pump that sits on top of the main crankcase right by the intake manifold.” And I said, "Okay Brice, look, I don't know anything about this, but it makes sense to me that if you've got a spinning gear vacuum pump that's being driven on top of your box there and it's right near your intake manifold, it's got a spinning gear on one side with vacuum and on the other side, it's got to be cooled somehow.” He says, “Yes, an oil-cooled pump.” I said, “Okay, so you’ve got a vacuum on one side and you have oil on the other side. In between the two, there's got to be some sort of a seal or a little gasket or a diaphragm or something to keep them from mingling.” All of a sudden, the phone goes dead quiet on his end. I kept going. I said, “If that little seal or gasket, if it got a little hole in it or something like that, or it wore out, then you'd have oil being sucked right from the crankcase, directly into your intake manifold.” Again, silence. I said, "Would you just do me a favor? Is that a possibility? Is that real?” He said, “I’ll look into it.”
[15:24] About two hours later I get a call back, not from Brice. I get a call back from Hans himself. This is Hans, the guy at Hans Imports. Hans is calling me back and he's laughing. In a thick German accent, he's laughing and he says, “Brice, he wants to quit today. You have made Brice, my best guy, you made him want to quit because now the customers are diagnosing their own problems.” So, it cost me $79 to fix it, a little bit more because all the burning oil had caused the spark plugs to get coated in oil, but that wasn't related to the problem. The problem itself cost $79, including parts and labor to fix the problem.
Now here’s that the deal. All those people - the two new mechanics I didn't know and Brice - they are experts. They were experts. And I also believe that they, in this case, there are exceptions in the world, but in this case, I believe they were giving me their honest opinion. But also I know from my experience that they would have charged me $2000 to pull my engine to do a deep engine diagnosis and it wouldn't have solved the problem.
What’s the Point?
[16:50] So what's the point of this? I just told you a long story. What do you get out of that story? Let me tell you what I get out of that story. Expertise is largely a myth. I'm not saying that there are not people who are really well-trained, really experienced and really well-educated in specific areas. What I am saying is that making good decisions, the true depth of understanding is something different from that. Making good decisions is separate and distinct from the education and the training of experts in a field, and that in a reality, we can't rule ourselves, our lives, our finances, our communities just based upon what an expert tells us. It has to be tied with a thread. We have to be willing, at every point, to be willing to be courageous, willing to be wrong, willing to step out there and challenge the ideas that are being presented to us. We have to be able to say to an expert you need to be able to explain why you're right to me, in a way that not only I understand it, but that makes sense.
The Bank VP
I’m going to give you another example. I was in a discussion, I’m going to hold names to protect the privacy of the individual, but he was a Vice President at Bank of New York. We were having a discussion about economics, and he tended to be, I don't know if this makes any sense to you, but tended to be a Kingsian guy, a government solves all the problems type of guy. I tend to be more of a - if you want to stick me in a box, I hate being stuck in a box, but I lean towards freedom and free markets, but I'm not dogmatic about that. I'm sure that will come up in future podcasts. But we were having this discussion, and I was making my points and then he argued back to me. His argument back about why I was wrong is that he had a master's in economics, and he had a good job at a bank, and therefore, he was right.
[19:19] So let that sink in for a second. Here you have a guy - and I don't doubt him; maybe he had a Master's in Economics. His resume certainly said he was the Vice President at the Bank of New York. I don't doubt those credentials. But if your argument that says you're right, if your argument that says I should be following your advice or I should be setting policy based upon your opinion, if your argument is that basically you get to recite me your resume, if that's your argument, I no longer trust you.
Some of the most educated people in the world, some of the people with advanced PhDs, people who teach these subjects, sometimes they're the ones who are the most biased and sometimes they're the ones who are the most dogmatic and sometimes they’re some of the ones who are the most wrong.
The Wrap Up
That experience was profound to me. I've experienced it in other ways throughout my life, but it also gives you a little insight into me and about what makes me tick. Everything needs to be challenged; everything needs to be examined outside the box. And if it doesn't make sense, if we hear things, if I hear things out in the world, no matter what they are, and it doesn't make sense, we can't tie the threads together, you can't show me a direct cause and effect relationship, I'm not just going to rely upon your resume. I'm not just going to sit there and blindly follow what you say. I'm going to challenge a little bit; I'm going to push it. And if you can't articulate why you believe what you believe, then the problem’s probably with you, or in this case, a Vice President of the Bank of New York or a Mercedes mechanic in San Clemente. So that's that. That's kind of a philosophic underpinning, and we're going to do that with everything in this podcast and more.
I hope that sounds interesting because to me that sounds interesting as heck. That's it. I'll see you next time. Lots to talk about. We ain’t done yet, folks. Talk to you soon.