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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: February 2018

9 - Experts and Their Ecology




There are three key motivational assumptions of information choice theory. First, experts seek to maximize utility. Thus, the information-sharing choices of experts are not necessarily truthful. Second, cognition is limited and erring. Third, incentives influence the distribution of expert errors. I take up each point in turn.

Experts Seek to Maximize Utility

The information-choice assumption that experts seek to maximize utility is parallel to the public-choice assumption that political actors seek to maximize utility. I have used the word “seek” to avoid any suggestion that experts must be modeled as “rational.”

The assumption of utility maximization should not be given a narrowly selfish meaning. Agents who seek to maximize utility may seek praise or praiseworthiness as well as material goods. Truth may often be an element in the utility function, though it will usually be subject to tradeoffs with other values. While I think truthfulness is a value that should generally be treated as like any other, I do not wish to deny that some experts will find ways to constrain themselves to a corner solution. Hausman and McPherson (1993, p. 685, n. 21) relate an apposite story about Lincoln's response to a man who tried to bribe him. (They report that they could not trace the origin of the story.) “Lincoln kept brushing him off genially and the briber kept increasing his price. When the price got very high, Lincoln clouted him. When asked why he suddenly got so aggressive, Lincoln responded – because you were getting close to my price!” On the other hand, we also have instances in which truth seems to be quite absent from an expert's utility function, as in the fraudulent forensic science of Fred Zain, who simply lied in court about tests he had never performed (Giannelli 1997, pp. 442–9). Abe Lincoln and Fred Zain remind us that different experts will have different utility functions, in some of which truthfulness will have a higher marginal value than in others.

The assumption of utility maximization has created controversy for public choice theory. That theory has been criticized for assuming “egoistic rationality” (Quiggin 1987). There is some truth to the claim that public choice theorists have assumed people are selfish in some sense.

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