When are the experts expert?

This question was very much in my mind while I was chairing a meeting of local traders and other residents at West Bay recently.

The traders were, I think it would be fair to say, up in arms about the new road layout that has been carefully constructed at West Bay during recent months.

Clearly a lot of thought and planning (and a considerable amount of money) has gone into this new road system – and one has to assume that those who put it together will have been experts in the field. What is more, the plan is obviously well-intentioned. The only reason for going to all this trouble and spending of public money will have been a conscientious attempt on the part of the experts to improve conditions in West Bay. So far, so good.

What became clear at the meeting, however, was that the traders did not believe the experts. They are pretty universally convinced that the effect of the new road layout will be to create monumental traffic jams, much diminishing the attraction of this rather wonderful part of the Dorset coastline.

Clearly, what is needed is some careful monitoring over the course of the next year or so to discover whether it is the experts or the traders who are right, so that adjustments can be made if the extremely pessimistic prognostications of the traders turn out to be justified. I am glad to be able to report that the authorities seem more than willing to arrange for such evidence to be collected – and it may well be possible to adjust the signage somewhat in the meanwhile, in order to address some of the concerns that were expressed at the meeting on that score. So I am sure that this story will eventually have a happy ending.

But, sitting at the meeting, I found myself reflecting on the number of times over the past 16 years in West Dorset I have come across the difference between the intuitions of the locals and the views of the experts about the way in which traffic will move, or water will flow, or people will behave if a particular scheme or project is put in place.

I think I might actually do some proper research on this in my files one day if I can find the time – but my anecdotal memory is that the honours are about even between the experts and the locals. Roughly half of the time, the expert predictions have proved to be true and roughly the other half of the time the scepticism of the locals has proved to be correct.

Hence the question: “how expert are the experts?” – and I suppose one could add a second, equally difficult question of even more practical importance: namely, “how does one tell whether the experts are being expert?”

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