Yesterday’s Experts – woefully out of touch

Who are they?

“Yesterday’s experts” are those who have risen to the top of their profession by hard work and then, satisfied by the approval of their peers, stopped learning about new things. Yet they continued making judgements about things they obviously didn’t understand.

You do not want to become “yesterday’s expert”, because you can go down in history as a dunderhead of record when you make predictions about upcoming events.

There is a vast collection of erroneous predictions from yesterday’s experts. These predictions are all the more amazing because they were made by people who were known as innovative trailbreakers and highly successful businessmen right up to the point where they revealed that they had become dinosaurs.

What they said.

Here are some historical examples of bona fide experts who let themselves get out of touch.

Everything that can be invented has been invented.. — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Patent Office, 1899

The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.. — Admiral William Leahy, Manhattan Project, 1943

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. — Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? — H. M. Warner, Warner Bros. Studios, 1927

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp.

We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out anyway. — President of Decca Records, rejecting The Beatles after an audition, 1962

Space travel is bunk. — Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of the UK, 1957 (two weeks later Sputnik orbited the Earth)

Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever. — Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1889

The radio craze will die out in time. — Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1922

and finally, from a historical figure I admire greatly:

I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky. — Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President, on hearing reports of meteorites, 1790s

How did they get that way?

We can understand how average people with average knowledge will make very inaccurate predictions about the future, but it is harder to grasp how well-known “experts” can make such incredibly stupid statements regarding the future or even a current state of affairs.

In many cases, it is because these “experts” want to defend their exalted position and fight off competitors. They do not wish to look or listen except to sycophants who will agree with them. As of that moment they became “Yesterday’s Expert”.

How can you recognize someone who has become Yesterday’s Expert?

First of all, don’t be so compulsive about turning to authority in order to make up your mind about something. If you have looked at something and found it desirable, helpful, affordable and not harmful to your mind or body, you should trust your judgement and investigate further.

There are scads of people who would rather you didn’t get involved in things they don’t understand and they will find all sorts of arguments against what you are doing. Whether it is blogging, meditation, exercise, self-enlightenment, or launching a new career, some “authority” (yesterday’s expert) will have a crushing putdown of what you are doing or propose to do.

Ridicule is an unfailing indicator that someone is yesterday’s expert and hasn’t a clue about what is really going on.

Here is a classic example I ran across a few days ago:

NEWS.COM’S Declan McCullagh said the following in a panel discussion:


….Why would the blogosphere say anything much of interest more than the New York Times? They probably wouldn’t.

…I’ve been doing the equivalent of blogging since 1994, through my e-mail list Politech. (Sounds amazingly like Edison!)

My take on this

Don’t defer to yesterday’s expert. Become expert in your own way.

Blogs are a social phenomenon that is not readily understood by people like Declan who think of themselves as having been blogging because they published a newsletter. Newsletters are not aliases are not blogs, and the internet is not the wireless internet. Each has unique qualities.

Yesterday’s experts, like Declan, need to scramble in order to keep up. Technical curmudgeons don’t last long. They are dinosaurs and have little to offer us. We will become dinosaurs like them if we stop learning and doing new things.

Blogs are continually evolving. Only those with credible and interesting content will survive. All of yesterday’s experts will still be pontificating while you are cheerfully transforming your online community to make it more to your liking. The way to understand blogging is to blog. A few months of intense blogging and you will find that you know more than many of those writing articles about blogging.

Keep on blogging and push the boundaries as far as you can. If you don’t have a blog, keep reading blogs and making comments wherever you care to. It will be good for you and it is good for the blogger. Your communication adds value to what we create in the universe of blogs.

Thanks to Amy Gahran at Contentious and her Conference Panel on Blogging.

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0 Responses to Yesterday’s Experts – woefully out of touch

  1. Kathleen says:

    You’re right, David. We’re individually responsible for our opinions and shouldn’t settle for pre-digested conclusions. Research and weigh the validity.

    This is true for most areas of life, even medical treatment where alternatives may be available but not offered by the provider.

  2. Especially true in medicine, where past experience is often used to block new ideas, unless introduced by an approved insider.

    You have the right and the responsibility to do your own research. A doctor told me a few years ago, when I was first researching diabetes, that a few months of intensive research on the web would make me more knowledgeable about my illness than most doctors.

    That was encouraging and turned out to be true. I uncovered a supplement that worked better than Metformin and have managed severe Type II diabetes with it for three years.

  3. fletch says:

    Excellent post as usual. I realize the quotes of famous experts were illustrative and really not the main subject of the post, but that one by Jefferson surprised me. His interest in the natural world has probably not been exceeded to this day in one person, and it appears to be made during his prime and not in his elderly years. I can understand Edison’s aversion to AC, since his Edison Electric Co. was lighting up New York City basically with a bunch of batteries at the time.

  4. I have known about these quotes for years, but I never considered until recently that the people resonsible for these remarks were the movers and shakers of their times.

    It just goes to show that expertise is a dynamic balancing point. You don’t remain an expert unless you keep up on what is actually happening.

    By the way, some of these experts quickly rallied and went on to capitalize on the new inventions they had initially derided.

  5. Carrie says:

    Amazing quotes. And again, as usual, your advice is perfect. Great post David 🙂

  6. David Shelton says:

    Hi love your list of quotes from folks who thought they knew it all – I think you’ll soon be able to add another woefully out of touch one, one that should ensure the sayer’s place in history:

    Climate change is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people
    James Inhofe, US Senate, 2007

  7. david shelton says:

    your list of mistimed judgements is great – we need an exhaustive list – how about adding this one from the civil war – didn’t take years or generations to determine it was woefully off the mark – sadly he never knew it was wrong

    “Stand up you cowards, they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-” John Sedgwick’s last words.

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