Jim Letourneau's Blog

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How to Become a Pop-Expert - a Guide to the Guru Business

Peter Shawn Taylor's essay in Canadian Business, Peak Delusion, does a fantastic job of guru deconstruction. Unfortunate for Jeff Rubin who has his photo is marked up with the word "wrong" 12 times. Hell, I'm wrong 12 times a week, but this is not about me. Rubin is no stranger to negative press (Dan Gardner: Jeff Rubin is a guru you shouldn’t listen to) which is interesting given Canada's image of being "nice".

Taylor provides the template that most pop-experts follow. 

Since the Oracle at Delphi, humans have looked to soothsayers to point the way. While ancient Greek prognosticators were famous for their cryptic suggestions, readers today expect (and are willing to pay for) a substantially clearer message. A certain formula has evolved: Take an expert with established credibility. Reduce the fate of the world to a single, simple concept. Create a suitably grim future to attract plenty of media attention. Then, if possible, add a glimmer of salvation, if only to keep readers' spirits up enough to buy your next book.

He goes on to mention David Foot (demographics), Thomas Homer-Dixon (water wars), Don Tapscott (technology), and Richard Florida (urban geography) as examples of pop-experts.

Taylor's essay echoes some of the key points in Dan Gardner's Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, And You Can Do Better. Gardner divides gurus into two classes, foxes and hedgehogs. Ronald Bailey's It's Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future article describes their differences as follows:

Foxes are intellectual omnivores obtaining disparate information where they can. Hedgehogs in contrast fit all information into one central grand scheme that explains the operation of the world.

If you want to be a successful expert, follow Gardner's advice and Be simple, clear, and confident. Be extreme. Be a good storyteller. Think and talk like a hedgehog. 

Hedgehog gurus like Jeff Rubin are often very wrong but they survive and thrive by providing us simplicity and certainty in an uncertain world. They are simply giving the people what they want.  

Fox gurus like Donald Tapscott provide us with less certainty and more reality. They modify their narratives as new information becomes available, instead of emitting "squid-ink clouds of obfuscation." Tapscott's words sum up the ever changing world that foxes inhabit "I think the future is not something to be predicted, it's something to be achieved."