The local alternative rock station has a morning show that I often listen to on my commute because it’s actually intelligent and talks about neat things sometimes. One of the hosts has this funny way he talks about any story that involves surveys, studies or reports to prove a point that someone’s trying to make. It’s hard to articulate in text but he’ll say “Oh here we go, another study, everyone loves a good study, you gotta’ always back up your point with a study.” He does it to illustrate how virtually every news report these days has some kind of commissioned document accompanying it which claims “experts in the field” agree with what it’s saying. It’s become so commonplace that many people just shrug now, assuming that one can concoct “expert opinion” to side with anything. I’ve thought this for a long time. Experts are often trotted out with nothing to back up their expertise, are praised when they’re right and rarely called out when they’re wrong which is far more often than you might think.
The CBC recently had en episode of their Doc Zone program which attempts to tackle this very subject. It shows how providing “professional experts” has actually become an industry unto itself, largely because of the growth of cable news channels that care more about ratings than journalism. They did a bunch of blind tests with supposed “experts” in various fields and discovered that many of them are no better qualified to judge a field than the average person. They also go into detail about the “experts” industry and how easy it is to turn yourself into one with just a few hours of media training and a genre of expertise you choose to call your own. They found that most of the time, no one will care if you’re right or wrong, they just want a talking head.
Anyone who knows me from forums also knows that I have a real beef with video game industry analysts, particularly ones like Michael Pachter. Sadly, much of the gaming press suffers from the same problems as cable news and analysts like these have turned themselves into mini celebrities among gamers by making wild predictions about the industry. Occasionally they’re right but most of the time they’re not and often, really not. The games press trips over themselves to quote them at every turn because stories from them often equal easy page views and when you’re simply quoting someone else from an e-mail, it doesn’t require a lot of work or research to generate the story. In order to keep their access to these analysts, the press will usually gloss over or ignore the many times they’re wrong which to many readers, is just an implication of the analyst being right. One could argue that most of the gamers reading these articles aren’t stockholders of the companies discussed and that it ultimately has little impact but I don’t buy that argument. People like Pachter talk about these companies publicly, often making predictions out of sensational value rather than business acumen and I think that’s irresponsible. The readers of the article may not be buying stock but these predictions may influence their decision to buy a product or not and that certainly has implications for the industry as a whole.
Real expert opinions are great things and we should be seeking them out. Unfortunately, expertise like everything else is quickly becoming more about a path to quick money rather than providing real information. This is also a sign of the dilution of proper journalism that has happened as the industry consolidates under fewer and fewer for-profit companies, a trend that’s not likely to change any time soon. I highly recommend checking out the CBC documentary if you have the time as it will give you a great many things to think about the next time you hear an “expert” on the news talking about their latest study.