Charlatans exist because people crave certainty

I have a whole chapter in my book, Clash of the Financial Pundits, that explains why we’re so easily lulled into stupidity by economic or market commentators. It boils down to the fact that the world is an uncertain place, so we inherently gravitate toward those who provide us with certainty. It’s how organized religions were first formed and how leaders throughout history have been chosen. Frequently wrong, never in doubt is good enough when those around you are desperate for an easy answer.

In finance, the more certain a speaker is, the more likely it is that their audience will come to believe in what they’re hearing as though it’s guaranteed. Some market commentators use this power for self-enrichment or abuse. I see it online every day and in my email inbox. I see it on TV and hear it on the radio.

In the wake of a letter from Columbia University’s faculty complaining about Dr. Oz and the discredit he is to the medical profession, Dr. Saurabh Jha writes the following at Quartz:

One might counter that Oz is using his position to misinform people. Specifically, he is misinforming people about alternative and holistic medicine, and a lot of lucrative nutritional supplements. But people don’t listen to Dr. Oz to be “informed.” People aren’t interested in numbers, uncertainty, the idea that more research is needed, or that science is a provisional assumption. People want certitude and solutions. This is why chicanery is fertile. God may be dead, but prophets are still alive and kicking.

Economists have figured this out. They have stopped saying, “On the one hand, QE could save the economy; on the other hand, QE could ruin the future.” People are tired of uncertainty. So now one-handed economists swagger with unprecedented certainty. They have, however, bifurcated into two camps—the Democrat economists and the Republican economists. The two hands remain.

Oz is a product of the masses. He exists because of our love for the circus, and our frustration with uncertainty. Uncertainty is the DNA of science. He exists because science can’t cure our existential angst. If Oz didn’t exist, he would have been invented. If he were not at Columbia, he would have been at Stanford.

Josh here – There are many parallels between what Dr. Oz is for the health care profession and what some popular market pundits are for the investing industry. People who pound their fists on the table about markets or claim to reliably predict the economic future are every bit as damaging to the American public as the charlatan doctor who makes outrageous medical claims.


Dr. Oz is popular because the truth is boring (Quartz)

Read also:

Clash of the Financial Pundits (Amazon)

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