Walubengo's Den

Not just another WordPress site

1 Comment

The Hill of Lions




Those are the words that come to mind as I approach the Hill of Lions.

It is late evening. The sun is setting fast, which makes me just a bit scared. The African in me still nurtures a healthy fear of wildlife, so I keep the car windows rolled up most of the time. I open them periodically to let in the fresh forest and lake air, but whenever I spot a family of monkeys or a troop of baboon, back up the windows go. I don’t trust wild animals.

The KWS wardens at the entrance to the park were surprisingly helpful, professional and welcoming, a refreshing surprise in my humble opinion.

I soon arrive at Sarova Lion Hill; my destination.

Again. I’m in for a surprise. The staff are amazingly welcoming and helpful. As a Kenyan, and a black Kenyan at that, I always expect discrimination at such establishments, as often happens at the coast. Here there is none of that. There is a troop of tourists arriving at the same time as me, yet the service I am accorded makes me feel special and wanted.

Ascending the pathway to my room, I again feel those two words: Peace and Serenity.

I was last here a decade ago. Came for a retreat for the organisation I was working for. It was a packed and rushed visit. Not like now.

Now I can savour every moment and every sight. The silent beauty of the pathways, the subtle elegance and beauty of my room. Speaking of which, my room is aptly named ‘Justicia’. I chuckle at the coincidence.

The the food. I cannot over emphasize this: Sarova never disappoints in the food section. Never. Be it the Sarovca Stanley smack in the middle of the Nairobi Central Business District, or the Sarova Panafric or now Sarova Lion Hill.

The food never disappoints.

It is glorious, and I gorge myself. From the freshly cut salads to the deliciously delightful meats it is a heavenly pleasure.

I always hear that Lion Hill is a treat for a bird watchers and I saw why. Dozens of bird species dot the area. One beautiful little bird flew into the dining room during breakfast and landed right on my table. Hopping around while cautiously appraising me, after a moment or three, it quickly made off with a bright red packet of sweetener, leaving me laughing.

I have loads more positive things to say about my visit to Sarova Lion Hill, but dear reader, allow me to end here. All I can say is that wish you at least once have the exquisite pleasure of experiencing this heavenly establishment.



Leave a comment


Phil Bio

Philip Walubengo is a lawyer, author, writer, public speaker and development worker. He also fancies himself as an artist. He also dabbles in politics from time to time. He likes to think that he has a sense of humour.

He is the editor and publisher of the blog Walubengo’s Den, whose Facebook page is here:


He is also the editor and publisher of the blog known as The Battousai, his alter ego, whose Facebook page is here:


He is the author of the book:  the Himura Chronicles, whose Facebook page is here:


He is also the editor and compiler of a book known as 500 Amazing Quotes, whose Facebook page is here:


Philip Walubengo’s official Facebook page is:




1 Comment

THE HIMURA CHRONICLES: Don’t Be An Asshole (Or Ratchet, or Bitch, or Bitch Nigga)








One of the best ways to pollute the energy in a group situation is by being a total asshole. Yuo might succeed in getting people fully energized, but it won’t be in a productive way. If you think of your bad behaviour as a lifestyle choice, as in ‘being yourself’ or ‘just being honest’, you might be ignoring the cost to your personal energy and to your reputation. When you piss off the people around you, there is bound to be some blowback and wasted effort cleaning up the mess you made. It can all be quite distracting and draining. Trust me on this one; I know.

I’ve noticed that an alarming number of people have adopted the asshole lifestyle and decided it works well enough to stay on that path. While the word ‘asshole’ usually makes you think of males, in this context I mean it to be gender inclusive. The same applies to the term ratchet. Bitch and bitch nigga are self explanatory, but all these terms refer to the same set of behaviour.

There’s no single agreed definition of what it means to be an asshole. It might include selfishness, arrogance, mean-spiritedness, being a gossip, a hater, backstabber, not helping your friends when they’re down, or any number of other character flaws. You know asshole behaviour when you see it. And if you’re normal, you’ve probably been one for at least a few minutes of your life.

I would define an asshole as anyone who chooses to make the lives of others less pleasant for reasons that are not productive or necessary.

Asshole behaviours:

1. Changing the subject to him/herself

2. Dominating conversation

3. Bragging

4. Cheating, lying

5. Disagreeing with any suggestion, no matter how trivial

6. Using honesty as a justification for cruelty

7. Withholding simple favours out of some warped sense of social justice

8. Abandoning the rules of civil behaviour, such as saying hello, making eye contact, not interrupting people when they’re speaking, and observing phone etiquette.

9. Engaging in unnecessary acts of violence

10. Talking shit about friends or loved ones, especially about spouses.

I assume asshole behaviour exists because it feels good when you do it. In that sense it’s like an addiction. The long term effect of being an asshole can’t be ood for the person immersed in the lifestyle, but it must feel good in the short term.

That’s a bad trade off. You self-interest is best served by being a reasonable person whenever you can muster it.




Leave a comment

I Came To Win


I wish today it would rain all day
Maybe that will kinda make the pain go away
Trying to forgive you for abandoning me
Praying but I think I’m still an angel away
Angel away, yeah strange in a way
Maybe that is why I chase strangers away
They got their guns out aiming at me
But I become Neo when they’re aiming at me
Me, me, me against them
Me against enemies, me against friends
Somehow they both seem to become one
A sea full of sharks and they all smell blood
They start coming and I start rising
Must be surprising, I’m just amazing
I win, thrive, soar, higher, higher, higher
More fire

I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive
I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise
To fly
To fly

Everybody wanna try to box me in
Suffocating every time it locks me in
Paint their own pictures then they crop me in
But I will remain where the top begins
Cause I am not a word, I am not a line
I am not a girl that can ever be defined
I am not fly, I am levitation
I represent an entire generation
I hear the criticism loud and clear
That is how I know that the time is near
So we become alive in a time of fear
And I ain’t got no motherfucking time to spare
Cry my eyes out for days upon days
Such a heavy burden placed upon me
But when you go hard your nay’s become yay’s
Yankee Stadium with Jay-Z and Kanyes!!!

Leave a comment

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Leave a comment

PAUL KAGAME: A leader that Kenyan Presidents Should Emulate?


I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Rwanda a while back. I was stunned by the cleanliness and adherence to the rule of law, of course after I had finished admiring the women, who are not only astonishingly beautiful but refreshingly respecful as well. Okay I’m lying – I never finished admiring the women. The whole country feels like they are united in the common cause of progress and development. Drivers didn’t speed on the roads, police roadblocks were manned by only two policemen, one female one male. Their speed cameras would capture your speed as well as the details of the vehicle and driver and you would be shipped off immediately to court. Rwandese police are famously unbribable. The streets of Kigali are safe, you can walk undisturbed at any hour of the day and night. All boda boda drivers and their passengers wear helmets, and all the helmets are green. Naturally, being a brilliant and ambitious young man, I possess a healthy dose of curiosity. I had to find out how and why this was so. I soon discovered that it was a top down issue, coming directly from the President himself.

Recently a poll was carried out among the cab drivers in the capitals of East Africa. They were asked whom they would like to be President of East Africa if we all became one country. The results were a landslide: Paul Kagame. From personal experience, the average cab driver is more knowledgeable and is more intelligent than the average citizen, as well as the average middle class person.

Rwanda’s unquestionable ruler is Paul Kagame. Officially, he begun as a thirty seven-year-old was vice president and minister of defense, but he had led the RPF since the early days of the rebellion and had firm control over the government. A gaunt, bony man with wire-rimmed spectacles and a methodical style of speaking, Kagame left an impression on people. He didn’t smoke, drink, or have much time for expensive clothes or beautiful women. He wasn’t given to flowery speech or elaborate protocol. His wardrobe apparently only contained drab, double-breasted suits that hung loosely from his thin frame, plain polo shirts, and combat fatigues. The only entertainment he apparently indulged in was tennis, which he played at the Sports Club with RPF colleagues and diplomats. Passersby would be alarmed by the soldiers standing guard with machine guns.

 Kagame’s obsessions were order and discipline. He personally expropriated his ministers’ vehicles when he thought those public funds could have been used for a better purpose. He exuded ambition, browbeating his ministers when they didn’t live up to his expectations. He complained to a journalist:

 “In the people here, there is something I cannot reconcile with. It’s people taking their time when they should be moving fast, people tolerating mediocrity when things could be done better. I feel they are not bothered, not feeling the pressure of wanting to be far ahead of where we are. That runs my whole system.”

 This asceticism had been forged in the harsh conditions of exile. Kagame’s first memories were of houses burning on the hills and his panicked mother scrambling into a car as a local mob ran after them. This was in 1961, when anticipation of independence from Belgium had led to pogroms against the Tutsi community, which had been privileged by the colonial government. Around 78,000 Tutsi had fled to Uganda, with another 258,000 going to other neighboring countries. Like many RPF leaders, Kagame grew up as a refugee in Uganda, living in a grass-thatched hut while attending school on a scholarship.

 “You will always hear me talking about the importance of dignity,” he later commented. “It is really the key to people’s lives, and obviously for me it relates back to the refugee camp, the lining up for food every day, the rationing. When we started primary school, we used to study under a tree. We used to write on our thighs with a piece of dry, hard grass, and the teacher would come over and look at your thigh, and write his mark with another piece of dry grass. You develop some sense of questioning, some sense of justice, saying, “Why do I live like this? Why should anybody live like this?”

 The squalid conditions of the refugee camps and the animosity of their Ugandan neighbors were constant reminders that this was not his real home. His mother was from the royal family in Rwanda—his great aunt had been the queen—and their stories of royal grandeur and authority were a far cry from the UN handouts they lived on in the camps. When his schoolmates went to play, he preferred to sit with former Tutsi guerrilla fighters and listen to stories about their battle against the Hutu-dominated regime in the 1960s. After he finished high school, Kagame ventured across the border to see for himself what his fabled homeland had become. He was harassed for being a Tutsi, but he felt exhilarated by being among his people on his land. He sat in bars, sipping a soft drink and listening to conversations. He spent several afternoons walking by the presidential palace in Kigali, drawn magnetically to the seat of power that was at the root of his exile in Uganda, until security guards got suspicious and told him to scram.

 Back in Uganda, fellow refugees told him about a Ugandan rebellion that was being formed in Tanzania to overthrow the dictator Idi Amin, who had discriminated against the refugees for years. Led by Yoweri Museveni, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) recruited heavily among the Tutsi refugees. It seemed perfect for the twenty-two-year old Kagame, who was itching to rise up out of the squalor of the camps. His stern and disciplined temperament drew him to work in military intelligence, a branch that shaped his outlook on politics. He received training in Tanzania, in Cuba, and, much later, at Fort Leavenworth in the United States. When the NRM took power in 1986, Kagame’s fierce discipline earned him a position at the head of the military courts, investigating and prosecuting soldiers’ breaches of discipline. Among detractors and supporters alike, he became known as “Pilato,” short for Pontius Pilate, because of the harsh way he dealt with any violation of the military code. Soldiers who stole from civilians or embezzled fuel from military stocks would be locked up; more serious violations could earn a place in front of a firing squad. “He can’t stand venality or indiscipline —it provokes an almost physical reaction of disgust in him,” a Ugandan journalist who knew him during this time, remembered.

Kagame was soon promoted to become the head of Ugandan military intelligence, a position that provided a perfect vantage point from which to pursue his true ambition: overthrowing the Rwandan government. He plotted together with other Rwandan refugees who had risen to leadership positions in the Ugandan army, positioning stocks of weapons and secretly recruiting other Rwandans to their cause. In 1990, they attacked. The guerrilla struggle in Rwanda was marked by self-sacrifice and harsh conditions. In the early years of the rebellion, the RPF was beaten back into the high-altitude bamboo forests of the volcanoes in north western Rwanda, where temperatures at night dropped to freezing and there was little food or dry firewood. Kagame enforced draconian discipline, executing soldiers suspected of treason or trying to desert.

He perfected his hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, harrying the enemy, attacking convoys, but never engaging in large, conventional battles. People who met Kagame and his RPF colleagues during this time were impressed by the rebels’ dedication. The refugee camps and years in exile had steeled them and made them rely on each other. This ethic was not new to their culture. The precolonial Rwandan kingdom had been forged over centuries of warfare, leading to a central, Tutsi-led royal court with large standing armies. Stories of great Tutsi warriors were embellished and passed down through the generations. The most famous Rwandan dance, intore, was a war dance that the RPF themselves sometimes practiced around the campfire, stamping their feet and mimicking cows’ horns with their arms.


Kagame’s exploits and discipline earned him praise from around the world. General John Shalikashvili, the American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, studied Kagame’s military tactics and praised him as one of the best guerrilla leaders in decades.

 “Kagame is an intellectual figure. I would rate him as a first rate operational fighter,”

 a former director of the U.S. Army School for Advanced Military Studies said. “He understands discipline. He understands speed. He understands mobility.”

After the overthrow of the Habyarimana regime, RPF leaders celebrated victory in Kigali; Ugandan waragi—a strong gin made out of millet—was a favorite. Mixed with Coca Cola, it was dubbed “Kigali Libre” by RPF officers. Kagame, however, was typically reserved. The war was not yet over, he told his army colleagues. There was merely a truce enforced by an international border with Zaire. A third of the population was still living in camps outside the country, and rebels were regularly caught with grenades and disassembled weapons in the main market in Kigali. Every month brought assassinations of local officials and attacks on army camps. In the meantime, Rwandan frustrations with international donors stewed. Not only had they failed to intervene during the genocide, but they were now feeding the génocidaires and allowing them to rearm. Despite an arms embargo on the government-in-exile, arms traders flew over $8 million in weapons to the defeated Rwandan army in Goma and Bukavu in the months just after the genocide. Hundreds of new recruits were being trained on soccer pitches next to the refugee camps, often within sight of Zairian soldiers. Despite the handwringing and horror at the Rwandan genocide that had finally gripped western capitals, the international community was once again abandoning Rwanda. Kagame fulminated to the press:

 “I think we have learned a lot about the hypocrisy and double standards on the part of people who claim that they want to make this world a better place.”

Kagame built one of the most formidable intelligence outfits in the world. I would posit that it is among the most efficient in Africa, whatever your views are on what they do. I’m not saying anything, but that chap that was under state protection in SA the other day was still assassinated, through a plan that took years to bring to fruition. After the genocide, it was only a matter of time before Rwandese intelligence had operatives throughout the region, infiltrating the Hutu army, refugee camps, the Congolese government as well as Ugandan military and intelligence. It is on record that they engineered at least one coup in the Congo. I would also posit that Rwanda, if the position is not taken up by Kenya, will become the Israel of Africa.

Legend has it that recently when he found out that two of his ministers, who were both married were carrying out an extra marital affair with each other, he caned them himself and instructed them to rectify their ways.

Kagame actually compiled a report on the corruption on Kenyan roads. He presented this report to Mwai Kibaki, showing him the amount and frequency of bribes that truck drivers had to part with while driving through Kenya. Naturally, Kibaki, who can be viewed as the George Bush Junior of East Africa, didn’t give a fuck. Kenyans discussed the report heatedly for a while and then naturally, in line with their general foolishness, selfishness, shallowness, apathy and short term memory, aptly forgot about it.

I think we need our own Paul Kagame.


Leave a comment

THE SCANDAL OF PREDICTION: How Many Lovers Has Rachel Shebesh had?


One March evening, a few men and women were standing on the esplanade overlooking the bay outside the Sydney Opera House. It was close to the end of the summer in Sydney, but the men were wearing jackets despite the warm weather. The women were more thermally comfortable than the men, but they had to suffer the impaired mobility of high heels. They all had come to pay the price of sophistication. Soon they would listen for several hours to a collection of oversize men and women singing endlessly in Russian. Many of the opera-bound people looked like they worked for the local office of J. P. Morgan, or some other financial institution where employees experience differential wealth from the rest of the local population, with concomitant pressures on them to live by a sophisticated script (wine and opera). But I was not there to take a peek at theneosophisticates. I had come to look at the Sydney Opera House, a building that adorns every Australian tourist brochure. Indeed, it is striking, though it looks like the sort of building architects create in order to impress other architects.

That evening walk in the very pleasant part of Sydney called the Rocks was a pilgrimage. While Australians were under the illusion that they had built a monument to distinguish their skyline, what they had really done was to construct a monument to our failure to predict, to plan, and to come to grips with our unknowledge of the future—our systematic underestimation of what the future has in store. The Australians had actually built a symbol of the epistemic arrogance of the human race. The story is as follows. The Sydney Opera House was supposed to open in early 1963 at a cost of AU$ 7 million. It finally opened its doors more than ten years later, and, although it was a less ambitious version than initially envisioned, it ended up costing around AU$ 104 million. While there are far worse cases of planning failures (namely the Soviet Union or the Kenyan Jubilee government’s laptop project), or failures to forecast (all important historical events), the Sydney Opera House provides an aesthetic (at least in principle) illustration of the difficulties. This opera-house story is the mildest of all the distortions (it was only money, and it did not cause the spilling of innocent blood). But it is nevertheless emblematic.

 We are demonstrably arrogant about what we think we know. We certainly know a lot, but we have a built-in tendency to think that we know a little bit more than we actually do, enough of that little bit to occasionally get into serious trouble.  Why on earth do we predict so much? Worse, even, and more interesting: Why don’t we talk about our record in predicting? Why don’t we see how we (almost) always miss the big events? We call this the scandal of prediction.


 Let us examine what I call epistemic arrogance, literally, our hubris concerning the limits of our knowledge. Epistëmê is a Greek word that refers to knowledge; giving a Greek name to an abstract concept makes it sound important. Just the way some of my lecturers at the University of Nairobi Law School felt that saying things in Latin made them look and sound cleverer. I’m not mentioning names like the impudent Professor Ben Sihanya or the amazingly arrogant Dr. Migai Akech. Or the spineless Kipchumba Murkomen who’s Latin sounded more like bad Kalenjin. True, our knowledge does grow, but it is threatened by greater increases in confidence, which make our increase in knowledge at the same time an increase in confusion, ignorance, and conceit.

 Take a room full of people. Randomly pick a number. The number could correspond to anything: the proportion of psychopathic stockbrokers in Nairobi, the sales of Philip Walubengo’s soon to be published book during the months with r in them, the average IQ of business-book editors (or business writers), the number of lovers of Rachel Shebesh, et cetera. Ask each person inthe room to independently estimate a range of possible values for that number set in such a way that they believe that they have a 98 percent chance of being right, and less than 2 percent chance of being wrong. In other words, whatever they are guessing has about a 2 percent chance to fall outside their range. For example:

 “I am 98 percent confident that the population of Rajastan is between 15 and 23 million.”

“I am 98 percent confident that Rachel Shebesh has had between 34 and 63 lovers.”

 You can make inferences about human nature by counting how many people in your sample guessed wrong; it is not expected to be too much higher than two out of a hundred participants. Note that the subjects (your victims) are free to set their range as wide as they want: you are not trying to gauge their knowledge but rather their evaluation of their own knowledge.

 Now, the results. Like many things in life, the discovery was unplanned, serendipitous, surprising, and took a while to digest. Legend has it that Albert and Raiffa, the researchers who noticed it, were actually looking for something quite different, and more boring: how humans figure out probabilities in their decision making when uncertainty is involved (what the learned call calibrating). The researchers came out befuddled.

 The 2 percent error rate turned out to be close to 45 percent in the population being tested! It is quite telling that the first sample consisted of Harvard Business School students, a breed not particularly renowned for their humility or introspective orientation. MB As are particularly nasty in this regard, which might explain their business success. Later studies document more humility, or rather a smaller degree of arrogance, in other populations. Janitors and cabdrivers are rather humble. Politicians and corporate executives, alas . . . I’ll leave them for later.

 Are we twenty-two times too comfortable with what we know? It seems so.

 Our human race is affected by a chronic underestimation of the possibility of the future straying from the course initially envisioned (in addition to other biases that sometimes exert a compounding effect). To take an obvious example, think about how many people divorce. Almost all of them are acquainted with the statistic that between one-third and one-half of all marriages fail, something the parties involved did not forecast while tying the knot. Of course, “not us,” because “we get along so well” (as if others tying the knot got along poorly).

 Guessing and Predicting

There is no effective difference between my guessing a variable that is not random, but for which my information is partial or deficient, such as the number of lovers who have transited through the bed of Rachel Shebesh, and predicting a random one, like tomorrow’s unemployment rate or next year’s stock market. In this sense, guessing (what I don’t know, but what someone else may know) and predicting (what has not taken place yet) are the same thing.

 To further appreciate the connection between guessing and predicting, assume that instead of trying to gauge the number of lovers of Rachel Shebesh, or Lillian Muli, since Shebesh’s example is getting tiring, you are estimating the less interesting but, for some, more important question of the population growth for the next century, the stock market returns, the social-security deficit, the price of oil, the results of your great-uncle’s estate sale, or the environmental conditions of Kenyatwo decades from now. Or, if you are the publisher of Philip Walubengo’s book, you may need to produce an estimate of the possible future sales.

 We are now getting into dangerous waters: just consider that most professionals who make forecasts are also afflicted with the mental impediment discussed above. Furthermore, people who make forecasts professionally are often more affected by such impediments than those who don’t.

Let us discuss one main effect of information: impediment to knowledge. Aristotle Onassis, perhaps the first mediatised tycoon, was principally famous for being rich—and for exhibiting it. An ethnic Greek refugee from southern Turkey, he went to Argentina, made a lump of cash by importing Turkish tobacco then became a shipping magnate. He was reviled when he married Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the American president John F. Kennedy, which drove the heartbroken opera singer Maria Callas to immure herself in a Paris apartment to await death.

 If you study Onassis’s life, which I spent some time doing, you would notice an interesting regularity: “work,” in the conventional sense, was not his thing. He did not even bother to have a desk, let alone an office. He was not just a dealmaker, which does not necessitate having an office, but he also ran a shipping empire, which requires day-today monitoring. Yet his main tool was a notebook, which contained all the information he needed. Onassis spent his life trying to socialize with the rich and famous, and to pursue (and collect) women. He generally woke up at noon. If he needed legal advice, he would summon his lawyers to some nightclub in Paris at two a.m. He was said to have an irresistible charm, which helped him take advantage of people.

 Let us go beyond the anecdote. There may be a “fooled by randomness” effect here, of making a causal link between Onassis’s success and his modus operandi. I may never know if Onassis was skilled or lucky, though I am convinced that his charm opened doors for him, but I can subject his modus to a rigorous examination by looking at empirical research on the link between information and understanding. So this statement, additional knowledge of the minutiae of daily business can be useless, even actually toxic, is indirectly but quite effectively testable.

 Show two groups of people a blurry image of a fire hydrant, blurry enough for them not to recognize what it is. For one group, increase the resolution slowly, in ten steps. For the second, do it faster, in five steps. Stop at a point where both groups have been presented an identical image and ask each of them to identify what they see. The members of the group that saw fewer intermediate steps are likely to recognize the hydrant much faster. Moral? The more information you give someone, the more hypotheses they will formulate along the way, and the worse off they will be. They see more random noise and mistake it for information. The problem is that our ideas are sticky: once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds—so those who delay developing their theories are better off.

 When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate. Two mechanisms are at play here: confirmation bias and belief perseverance, the tendency not to reverse opinions you already have. Remember that we treat ideas like possessions, and it will be hard for us to part with them.

 The fire hydrant experiment was first done in the sixties, and replicated several times since. I have also studied this effect using the mathematics of information: the more detailed knowledge one gets of empirical reality, the more one will see the noise (i.e., the anecdote) and mistake it for actual information. Remember that we are swayed by the sensational. Listening to the news on the radio every hour is far worse for you than reading a weekly magazine, because the longer interval allows information to be filtered a bit. That’s why in a precious article I posited that reading the newspaper everyday actually decreases your knowledge of the world.

In 1965, Stuart Oskamp supplied clinical psychologists with successive files, each containing an increasing amount of information about patients; the psychologists’ diagnostic abilities did not grow with the additional supply of information. They just got more confident in their original diagnosis.Granted, one may not expect too much of psychologists of the 1965 variety, but these findings seem to hold across disciplines.

Finally, in another telling experiment, the psychologist Paul Slovic asked bookmakers to select from eighty-eight variables in past horse races those that they found useful in computing the odds. These variables included all manner of statistical information about past performances. The bookmakers were given the ten most useful variables, then asked to predict the outcome of races. Then they were given ten more and asked to predict again. The increase in the information set did not lead to an increase in their accuracy; their confidence in their choices, on the other hand, went up markedly. Information proved to be toxic.

 I’ve struggled much of my life with the common middlebrow belief that “more is better”—more is sometimes, but not always, better. This toxicity of knowledge will show in our investigation of the so-called expert.


 So far we have not questioned the authority of the professionals involved but rather their ability to gauge the boundaries of their own knowledge. Epistemic arrogance does not preclude skills. A plumber will almost always know more about plumbing than a stubborn essayist and mathematical trader. A hernia surgeon will rarely know less about hernias than a belly dancer. But their probabilities, on the other hand, will be off—and, this is the disturbing point, you may know much more on that score than the expert. No matter what anyone tells you, it is a good idea to question the error rate of an expert’s procedure. Do not question his procedure, only his confidence.

I will separate the two cases as follows. The mild case: arrogance in the presence of (some) competence, and the severe case: arrogance mixed with incompetence (the empty suit). There are some professions in which you know more than the experts, who are, alas, people for whose opinions you are paying—instead of them paying you to listen to them. Which ones?

 What Moves and What Does Not Move

There is a very rich literature on the so-called expert problem, running empirical testing on experts to verify their record. But it seems to be confusing at first. On one hand, we are shown by a class of expert-busting researchers such as Paul Meehl and Robyn Dawes that the “expert” is the closest thing to a fraud, performing no better than a computer using a single metric, their intuition getting in the way and blinding them. (As an example of a computer using a single metric, the ratio of liquid assets to debt fares better than the majority of credit analysts.) On the other hand, there is abundant literature showing that many people can beat computers thanks to their intuition. Which one is correct?

 There must be some disciplines with true experts. Let us ask the following questions: Would you rather have your upcoming brain surgery performed by a newspaper’s science reporter or by a certified brain surgeon? On the other hand, would you prefer to listen to an economic forecast by someone with a PhD in finance from some “prominent” institution such as the University of Nairobi (cough cough), or by a newspaper’s business writer? While the answer to the first question is empirically obvious, the answer to the second one isn’t at all. We can already see the difference between “knowhow” and “know-what.” The Greeks made a distinction between technë and epistèmê. The empirical school of medicine of Menodotus of Nicomedia and Heraclites of Tarentum wanted its practitioners to stay closest to technë (i.e., “craft”), and away from epistèmê (i.e., “knowledge,” “science”).

 The psychologist James Shanteau undertook the task of finding out which disciplines have experts and which have none. Note the confirmation problem here: if you want to prove that there are no experts, then you will be able to find a profession in which experts are useless. And you can prove the opposite just as well. But there is a regularity: there are professions where experts play a role, and others where there is no evidence of skills. Which are which?

 Experts who tend to be experts: livestock judges, astronomers, test pilots, soil judges, chess masters, physicists, mathematicians (when they deal with mathematical problems, not empirical ones), accountants, grain inspectors, photo interpreters, insurance analysts (dealing with bell curve style statistics).

 Experts who tend to be… not experts: stockbrokers, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, college admissions officers, court judges, councillors, personnel selectors, intelligence analysts (the CIA’s record, in spite of its costs, is pitiful), Kenyan Military Intelligence (I’ve always believed the phrase ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron – but the exception to this are my friends who are in the military, who are astute thinkers and exceptional gentlemen. That plus the fact that they know how and where to find me and beat me up, so I must kiss ass. Yes Dmitry, Fadamullah and Ndolo I’m talking about you.) I would add these results from my own examination of the literature: economists, financial forecasters, finance professors, political scientists, (think Mutahi Ngunyi, Makau Mutua) “risk experts,” of course the IMF and personal financial advisers.

So beware of experts and also beware of people who are too sure of their own opinions.

Have a wonderful day.