Experts in any field seem very unwilling to speculate, or even endorse speculation, about long-term developments in their field.

Whether it’s physics, or AI, or medicine, or politics, experts don’t want to talk about their ideas on long-term developments. In those rare cases where they do, they often use pseudonyms (many professional scientists have published science fiction, but only rarely under their real name).

I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve been collecting possible reasons:

1 – They have a lot to lose as experts if the speculations turn out wrong, and by their nature speculations are…speculative.

2 – They are very focused on immediate problems and progress. This is what they’re paid to to do, and where they get their professional prestige.

3 – They are more keenly aware than non-experts of the many difficulties there will be in the actual implementation of speculative ideas. While they may know intellectually that these difficulties are not insurmountable in principle, as an expert they’re overwhelmed by the amount of work yet to be done, and tend to assume it’ll never happen.

4 – Even if they think the speculations are reasonable and will turn out correct in the long run, because of #3 they fear losing professional respect within their field – other experts may be discouraged by the amount of work yet to be done, and so consider as “crazy” anyone who takes a longer-term view.

Supporting these ideas is the observation that those few experts who are willing to engage in speculation tend to be from the very top (Nobel laureates, etc.) or very bottom of their field.

Those, in other words, who are either so respected they don’t fear a loss of status, or who have no status to lose in the first place.

In a recent post on his blog Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson notes:

we often have academics who visit for lunch and take the common academic stance of reluctance to state opinions which they can’t back up with academic evidence

Which doesn’t directly explain why they don’t want to, while providing an excuse. Hanson suggests:

One does not express serious opinions on topics not yet authorized by the proper prestigious people.

Or, as Stephen Diamond has suggested,

Long-term speculation is hard to falsify until its propounders are safely dead. I suspect this is the reason for reluctance: it may seem a cheap way to get acclaim without empirical responsibility or consequences.

I think that’s a charitable interpretation – I suspect Hanson is closer to the truth.

2 Responses to “Why don’t experts speculate?”

  1. Bob Says:

    And then there are economists who do nothing but speculate and whose reputations survive lots of errors.

    It depends what you mean by “speculate”, though. Von Braun speculated about space stations and moon bases. Stephen Hawking talks about the future a lot. Don’t get me started on Ray Kurzweil.

    Perhaps it’s a matter of how much they’re talking to other experts vs. how much they’re talking to lay people. If you want to sell books, you need to dazzle the masses.

  2. Dave Says:

    The economists aren’t speculating about their field. They’re making projections about the economy itself, not the field of economics.

    Von Braun and Hawking are examples of people from the very top of their field – people whose reputations are so strong they don’t have to worry what their colleagues will think.

    Kurzweil is an example of someone from the bottom of the field – who doesn’t have a reputation to lose. Because he’s independently wealthy, well past the stage where he has to impress others, and from an entirely different field in the first place.

Leave a Reply