Home » Columns, Eve Pearlman

Eve Pearlman: Expertise matters

Submitted by on 1, April 16, 2010 – 5:00 am10 Comments

Photo by Jan Watten

A pleasant feature of working as a reporter is that you very often interview people who are experts. An entomologist, say, who has spent a lifetime learning about moths and butterflies. An MD whose entire professional career has been spent studying how babies and toddlers acquire language. Or a veteran administrator who has spent decades immersed in the intricacies of education law.

Over time, I have learned to appreciate — even savor — the abilities of experts. It can be thrilling when they quickly clarify my understanding or make illuminating and inclusive points — often correcting or refining ideas that I held when I began the interview. Often experts have introduced elements of an issue that I had not even imagined.

Like most of us, I can do research, Google up some articles, make some observations, form some opinions. But I have learned that there is a lot to be said for the accumulation of knowledge and depth of understanding that occurs over time. And while I am not one who easily surrenders authority, I have frequently been dazzled by the experts and expertise that I have encountered.

Paradoxically, I have found that it is very often people who know the most – for example, a professional at the peak of his or her career – who are most willing to acknowledge the limits of their expertise, to be open about what they don’t know, or what they can’t explain, or what is simply uncertain or unknowable.

A study once caught my eye. Researchers found that the highest achieving students tend to assess their performances the most harshly: ‘B’ students tend to assess their work as ‘A’ level, while top performing students tend to be the most self-critical, downgrading their own performances. Curiously, those who knew less and had inferior skills thought the better of themselves — while the opposite was true for the high achievers.

As a reporter, I tend to take it as a big red flag when a person overvalues their performance or when they are 100 percent certain they are right. “This law is perfect!” or “This development plan is the best thing ever!” or “My way is the best and only way to run a school!”

Because in reality we know that nothing is perfect, that every solution or plan or theory is partial — especially things of human making, like laws, which are most always products of human foible and compromise.

The ability to know what one does not know, to understand that one might not be expert and to admit doubt or complexity is indeed an important skill, one often left by the wayside in political debate in Alameda.

In political discussions on our Island, I notice that there are many absolute pronouncements from self-declared experts in everything from city finances to the laws that govern public school administration. How can bystanders and critics be so sure that they could run a school district better than those who have spent their life acquiring expertise? Are you sure, fellow citizens, that you know how to develop an age-appropriate curriculum? Moreover, is SunCal really ‘evil’? Sometimes it feels as though everyone is an expert on everything, and that humility and open-mindedness were left somewhere in a crumpled paper bag tossed on the sidewalk to be hauled off to the landfill.

A cocky confidence does nothing to advance understanding. Along with civic participation comes responsibility, and in Alameda we could do with a little more recognition of the limits of our own expertise, our own knowledge. So perhaps when you, my fellow Alamedans, find yourself believing that you’re 100 percent, without-a-doubt certain, you should reconsider. And take a moment to reflect that there may be more learning to do, more information to acquire, assimilate and understand.


  • Michael Williams says:

    Eve, you are absolutely correct!

  • J.E.A. says:

    And, sometimes after doing the research we can feel 100 percent about things…Like, Schools good (pass the parcel tax) and SunCal bad (just make them go away).

  • Miriam says:

    Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent)
    self-insight among the incompetent




  • David Howard says:

    “Is SunCal really evil?”

    Ah! So the true purpose of this piece rears it’s head. Let’s examine some of the evidence:

    o SunCal mis-led voters in signature gathering for Measure B. So much so that a) people later asked to remove their names and b) fewer people voted for the measure than signed the petition. The lies of the signature gatherers are well documented.

    o In December, 2009, SunCal execs voted to file bankruptcy for their Albuquerque, New Mexico project, even while they campaigned in Alameda, touting the “financial strength” of DE Shaw, the company backing the Albuquerque project, and the same company that refused to pay the bills in New Mexico, leading the project into foreclosure and bankruptcy.

    o In the early part of 2008, SunCal tap-danced and delayed with the City of Alameda even as they knew of Lehman Brothers’ deteriorating financial conditions and worked to find another partner, DE Shaw. This was lying by omission.

    I could go on, but I’m sure that readers get the idea.

    If not “evil,” then what term, Ms. Pearlman, do you suggest we use for a group of people that repeatedly, blatantly, deceive a population and City Council whose support they say they want and need? If it was a friend, lover or family member, what would you think?

    You might also consider that some of these “expert” activities you write of don’t really require as much “expertise” as you pretend. Any reasonably educated person can understand a basic balance sheet or profit and loss statement or how to interpret most basic laws, rules and regulations.

  • Steve says:

    “A cocky confidence does nothing to advance understanding.”

    How true. Although she is by no means the only public figure who exhibits a cocky confidence, Sarah Palin was the first person to come to mind when I read your statement.

  • Karen Bey says:

    I’m not sure I agree with David Howard on much of anything — after reading his “My Word”
    article. It seems as though he is trying to make Measure E a race issue.

    But sorry — this is about expertise…..

    Often times we are called on to make important decisions that will impact our lives and our
    community for a long time. In the case of SunCal, what comes to mind is this clause
    I often see in contracts:

    “Buyer beware” or “Buyer to do his own due diligence”.

    In spite of the fact that most of the voters in Alameda have no expertise in development
    issues — SunCal included a 200 page development agreement/contract as part of the
    initiative. I wouldn’t call SunCal evil, but it is hard for me to move on after what SunCal
    tried to pull.

    I applause our community for coming together and using our collective expertise to analyze
    the documents and post their analysis for Alameda voters to read and process. This is what
    it looks like when the buyer does his due dilegence. It doesn’t take much expertise to know
    when you’re being had.

    Now that its over ….SunCal has the job of trying to earn back our trust. It’s a difficult
    job especially after hearing the news of their new bankrucptcy with D.E.Shaw.

  • David Howard says:

    Karen – if you want to debate the “race issue” present or not in Measure E, there’s another forum – click my name.

    However, I do agree with your comments re: SunCal. The vote on Measure B reflects the “Wisdom of the Crowds” expertise of the public with regards to analyzing the SunCal ballot measure.

    And as you (Karen B.) astutely note “It doesn’t take much expertise to know
    when you’re being had. “

  • dlm says:

    It would be great if every political discussion could be rational, reasonable and fair, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. How about a rational, reasonable and fair discussion about the traffic capacity of the tube? Why is that so difficult?

  • ct says:

    Mr Howard,

    Yes, SunCal did mishandle the signature gathering for their Measure B petition, that’s true.

    But according to a Reuters article (www.reuters.com/article/idUSN0519094320100405), Westland DevCo (of which D.E. Shaw and SunCal are limited partners) declared bankruptcy on their Albuquerque project last week because “disputes among the lenders [Barclays, Five Mile Capital, and a unit of iStar Financial] was making it difficult to negotiate a restructuring. To avoid the uncertainty of litigation, it filed for bankruptcy.” This account from Reuters differs from yours in its details and nuances.

    And it wasn’t until September 2008 that anyone outside of Lehman Brothers knew the extent to which the financial services firm was ailing.

  • Barbara Thomas says:

    Seven years ago AUSD said it needed a parcel tax of XXXX dollars to save the schools, only to be followed within 4 years by another parcel tax of XXX dollars to really save the schools? And then while both are still in place saying that neither of the first two were really adequate to save our schools as has been previously computed and announced and relied upon by the voters?? And we now need a new parcel tax of XXXXXXXX dollars? Forget the amounts, these are the accountants and business managers of today who can’t even get together a ten year plan based on their own projections. Why would anyone believe that this new parcel tax won’t be inadequate in the same or shorter amount of time as the last two?

    AUSD has placed it on the ballot knowing full well that they have the benefits until 2012 of the previous two parcel taxes that it engineered and said were adequate. So if this tax loses or passes at the polls or mailbox in this case, (At a cost of what $215,000)we can expect yet another and another parcel tax from AUSD. As long as the voters are willing to sit by and say “Yes this is for the kids, and it will keep everyone’s home values from crashing as fast as Oakland’s” and avoid the long hard look at where the money is going and what it will pay for, we are doomed. Every time AUSD demands money, the parents will move forward with the same old lines and get campaigning.

    Any one can hire an expert to espouse whatever position is wanted, and when. Look at global warming, smoking, anything. Thats what lawyers do all the time when they hire experts for court. And apparently what AUSD’s attorneys are doing with all the litigation they are fomenting.

    We cocky Alamedans are absolutely sure there is more learning to do. However when it comes to developers and AUSD, we’ve been there, done that. Over and over again. And it never changes. Corporate greed and mismanagement by municipal entities are a constant. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Government wastes 80% of all money it spends.” And we all know that no one from SUNCAL is ever going to live at ALAMEDA POINT. Of that I am 100% sure. Or do you not remember Ron Cowan crashing his helicopter as he flew in to HBI to work from Marin because of something attributed to pilot error? He forgot to adjust the altimeter? Little cockiness and he ended up in the drink. I would refer those of you who do not recall to the investigative works by Lance Williams, and the Seattle Post Intelligencer amongst others for the antics and fraud of past develoeprs. It never changes. Of that I am again, 100% sure.

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