How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Experts vs. Valuable Experts

In complicated times, what distinguishes experts from valuable experts?

Most often: their ability to transcend their discipline and pull from other disciplines. To give more than uni-disciplinary advice.

Tyler Cowen makes the point beautifully. In 1990, he argues, economists advising an Eastern bloc country on how to privatize couldn’t simply present plans based on economics alone and expect to succeed. They needed to factor in politics. Otherwise, they were doing something academic. If you refused to include politics in your plan, then don’t present it to busy policymakers and say “You figure it out.”

They cannot figure the rest out in most cases. Either stand by your proposed plan or don’t do it. It is indeed a proposal of some sort, even if you package it with some phony distancing language.

Instead, you should try to blend together the needed disciplines as best you can, consulting others when necessary, and offer the best plan you can, namely the best plan all things considered.

That might fill you with horror, but please recall from Tetlock that usually the generalists are the best predictors.

Similarly, in a pandemic, epidemiologists can’t simply present just epidemiology to decision makers. “If a public health person presents what is ‘only an estimate of public health and public health alone’ to policymakers,” Cowen argues, “I view it as like the economist in 1990 who won’t consider politics. Someone else should have the job.” He continues:

Right now public health, politics, and economics all interact to a significant extent. And if you present only one of those disciplines to a policymaker, you will likely confuse and mislead that policymaker, because he/she cannot do the required backward unthreading of the advice into its uni-dimensional component. You have simply served up a biased model, and rather than trying to identify and explain the bias you are simply saying “ask someone else about the bias.”

Cowen’s analysis is written for a pandemic. But the pandemic simply highlights the world in which we already were living — one of ever-increasing complexity, in which a uni-disciplinary approach addresses a smaller and smaller percentage of important and urgent-important challenges.

That is to say: is less and less relevant to decision making.

And might even be something of a lie — to yourself as well as others.

Cowen calls out Paul Krugman for declaring on Twitter that he is only doing macroeconomics and not epidemiology. “That is flat out wrong,” Cowen says. “All current macro models have epidemiology embedded in them, if only because the size of the negative productivity and negative demand shock depends all too critically on the course of the disease.”

So: if you’re doing conservation science (for example) and you’re not bringing into your planning and writing energy economics, behavioral psychology and systems analysis (to name three other disciplines), you’re not recognizing what’s embedded in your models.

Producing research-based thought leadership content frequently is one of the best ways to cross the chasm — often a Grand Canyon — between being an expert and being an expert who is valuable to a world of ever-increasing complexity. It forces you to do the analysis and synthesis and legwork necessary to be valuable to the world, instead of focusing on what is valuable to your discipline alone.

Cowen: “We need the best estimates possible, and presented to policymakers as such, and embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge. Of course that is hard. That is why we need the very best people to do it.”

The best estimates possible, embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge. The best plan all things considered.

That’s what I suspect you want your organization and quite probably yourself to be known for delivering. Because it’s hard, which makes it valuable.

Thought leadership is an essential exercise as you pursue that goal. It improves your ability to make valuable expert contributions to the conversation. And it is the valuable contribution itself.