Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Experts are Curmudgeons

The word 'corny' comes from the way mawkish stage scenes would pay off in the Midwest where the corn is, even though jaded New Yorkers found them hackneyed. I was reading a negative review on Slumdog Millionaire, and it highlighted the strangeness of the movie reviewing profession. It reminded me of a bad review of the teen vampire movie Twilight. I'm a middlebrow moviegoer (I liked both movies), having gone to enough to find the car chase scene in the latest Bond movie not very suspenseful, but I still like it when the guy gets the girl, or the bad guy gets eviscerated by his nemesis's nephew (note to self: don't kill Bruce Lee's uncle).

If one is paid to watch movies, it is very important to keep a perspective on your audience. Thus, after one sees the 50th high speed car chase, or woman falling down while the zombie is chasing her, it becomes boring. Such reviewers want to see scenes that are new, fresh, and have some resonance. But your average movie goer has nowhere near this amount of experience watching movies and so might appreciate these scenes, because it is not a cliche to them. This 'problem is not just in movies. Those who have never heard classical music find Eric Carmen's hits "All By Myself" and "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" beautiful melodies, which they are, whereas the music expert might dismiss these as stolen riffs from Sergei Rachmaninoff. There is an inevitable difference of opinion between an expert of any kind, and popular expositions in his field, because experts dominate reviews, whereas dilettantes dominate the audience.

I find Nassim Taleb's observations on statistics and models banal (see here), his hope for the potential for Knightian uncertainty or fractals naive. All models are wrong, some are useful. Fractals and knightian uncertainty are not wrong, but in part because of this (they can't be wrong), they are pretty useless. I have not met any full time risk managers, those actually making day to day risk management decisions, generating reports for senior management, who like the nihilistic focus on improbable events, who agree that Value-at-Risk should be abolished. Instead, the promoters of this extreme nihilism are lots of intellectuals and intellectual wanna-bes who understand risk management, the profession, from 10,000 feet up. I can see how, from the outside, his observations may appear a fresh, interesting view of finance, pregnant with implications for making improvements. Yet, criticisms of models for making 'wrong' assumptions is quite different than proposing a model with better assumptions.

I don't begrudge the popular people in my field who I think are very misguided. They are usually inspiring people to look further, always a good thing. Most aren't wrong, like Taleb (he suggests the most highly uncertain assets have the best returns--I argue that it's exactly the opposite), but rather merely boring. Suze Orman says sensible things, they just aren't very interesting to a professional.

I don't want to be like those movie reviewers saying that some movie stinks because it uses cliched imagery that most people find appealing. Not that I feel obligated to like what I perceive as tripe, but that I should appreciate the fact that others like it, because it's all new to them. Nothing wrong with that.


Anonymous said...

I had a similar feeling about music reviewers, that if you listen to enough music maybe the artistic crap that gets rave reviews like TV on the Radio starts sounding good, and the panned stuff that people actually listen to like Coldplay and the Killers somehow seems lame.

Anonymous said...

Roger Ebert is actually one of the few non-snobs in the profession. He reviews Adam Sandler and foreign art films by the same criteria: was I entertained.