How to spot a bad expert

Yogesh Upadhyaya
6 min readFeb 18, 2023

Money may not grow on trees but it seems that experts do. Experts on complex environmental, technological or political issues are to be found everywhere. In fact, they will find you on WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube or conventional media even when you are not looking for them. How do we know which experts are good and which bad? I have a test that helps identify many bad ones: If the expert does not seem to be aware of Foundational Facts of her field, you can ignore her. What do I mean by a Foundational Fact? Let me explain with examples.

Some facts hold up a field as these pillars do. Image by Lutz Peter from Pixabay

In a recent lecture, I asked my students a question: What did they think was the share of water consumption of agriculture, businesses (Industries and commercial establishments) and households in India? These were their answers.

As you can see, the highest estimate for agriculture was 70% and the lowest 10%. What is the reality? It is very different as can be seen in this graphic (sic) on the Website of National Water Mission

This incorrect understanding of reality is not limited to one bunch of young students. When we asked this question in our recent Rediscovery of India quiz, less than 30% of people got it right! And yet, this fact is crucial to even begin understanding issues such as pollution of our rivers, falling groundwater levels and distress of many farmers. When people ignore Foundational Facts all kinds of curious situations come up as it happened a few years ago.

In 2016, the Marathwada region of Maharashtra was facing a drought. The High Court in Mumbai suggested to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to not hold IPL matches in Mumbai. I showed with a simple calculation that the saving in water from not watering cricket grounds was irrelevant (Apart from the fact that the two places were separated by a huge distance). The problems in drought affected regions were largely due to growing water thirsty crops in dry regions.

Incidentally, this kind of thinking is not limited to India. When California was going through a drought in 2014, restaurants put restrictions on the amount of water they served customers! As in the case of IPL, simple calculations would show that the water savings here would be meaningless. Such measures are thought of only because people are not aware of how much water is taken by agriculture.

A caveat is in order. This may not be a foundational fact in some discussions even if they are about water. For example, if the discussion is about the water supply in a city that is limited by filtering and delivery infrastructure, the agricultural consumption of the whole country may not be relevant.

Let us take a more complex example.

The world is recovering from the Covid-19 epidemic. Fierce discussions have broken out all over the world about the policy responses of governments. Questions are being asked, such as — was lockdown an appropriate response? Did schools need to be shut down for extended periods? Did vaccines cause adverse events? Were vaccine mandates really the correct thing to do? If yes, for which age? Experts have jumped in trying to answer these questions. Which of these experts should we listen to?

In my view, one of the foundational facts about the disease was that it disproportionately targeted older folk. Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) — or number of people who died from the disease, divided by total number of people infected is a measure of the dangerousness of the disease. Various estimates have been made for the IFR and here is one such estimate published in Lancet. Note, that this estimate is from the period before the vaccines were administered and before the much less dangerous Omicron variant became dominant.

As can be seen, the disease was not dangerous for the young. The older folk on the other hand, were vulnerable to it. Thousands of times more vulnerable than seven year olds. This is a Foundational Fact. It has been known for more than a year and if any expert seems unaware of it today, then we can safely ignore her. Note that different studies have made different estimates of IFR. However, as in the case for estimates of use of water by agriculture, it is the scale of difference across age groups that is important.

Covid is complex. Governance is even more complex and our next example is about that. I mentioned earlier that less than 30% of people got the right answer to the question of how much water in India is used by agriculture. This was not the toughest question. Less than 15% of people got the right answer to the question: What proportion of our Members of Parliament are Graduates?

Issues of governance are intricate, especially for the uniquely large and diverse India. Is college education very important to be a MP? Do MPs really have power to make constructive change? Or even, has India’s performance really been disappointing? There are no right answers to these questions. However, if an expert blames the state of the country on the fact that our politicians are ‘illiterate’, you can safely ignore her. Three out of four of our MPs are graduates. Of course, even if the expert does not make this basic error, she could still be full of it.

How do we find out what foundational facts in a field are? You have to know at least a little bit about the field but you do not need to be an expert yourself. Reading widely and questioning what you read helps. Identifying and following people with a track record of being more right than wrong is another way. First chapters of good textbooks usually have the foundational facts about their fields.

Asking experienced professionals what we call KG level questions is another good technique. KG or Kindergarten level questions are questions that are so basic that you feel embarrassed to ask them. Funnily enough, when you do ask such questions, most others in the discussion will be happy. One of the simplest KG level questions is what we have been asking experts for a few years: What is the one fact about your field that you wished more people knew? We have done this over the last few years and the answers of the experts can be found on the many Rediscovery of India series on our website.

This is of course not a comprehensive set of methods of getting foundational facts. I invite readers to comment with their methods of arriving at Foundational Facts.

We are flooded with opinions on all kinds of issues. Most of them are wrong or at best, banal. I hope that the Foundational Fact test helps you just a little bit in weeding out the bad ones.

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This article is a part of a series The Thinker’s Toolbox. Do click to see related content.

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Yogesh Upadhyaya

Entrepreneur. Economist. Investor. Actor. Technophile. Policy wonk. Comedian. I love to explore places where these worlds intersect.