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I’m no expert

A journalist contacted me and wanted me to answer some questions. I said, sure, send them over by email, and here’s what came:

** The European Union has announced that the Special Financial Mechanism (SPV) will be implemented soon. What is your assessment of this mechanism? And how much do you think PSV could help Iran countering US sanctions?

** Recently, France and Germany volunteered to host this mechanism. Do you think having Europe’s biggest economies as host will guarantee SPV’s implementation?

** Do you think SPV could solve Iran’s oil trading problems?

** The United States exempts eight countries from Iran oil sanctions and recently extended the Iraqi exemption. Do you consider this a kind of retreat? And do you think US will be forced to extend exemption for other countries too?

** In general, what is do think of the Nuclear Deal which has been signed between Iran and 5+1 countries in 2015? Despite numerous inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency that confirmed every Iran’s compliance with the provisions of the deal, why does Tramp call it the worst deal that ever made? Is it just because the Obama administration made this deal or something else is in his mind?

** White House officials have accused Iran of violating human rights and claim that sanctions do not include humanitarian activities but as the international community acknowledges, sanctions directly target the lives of the Iranian people. What is your assessment of this dual behavior?

** How do you think the political future of someone such as Donald Tramp, who did not adhere to any of his international obligations, would be like?

** White House officials have accused Iran and some other countries of supporting terrorism, but they themselves are the ones that dines with terrorists, for example John Bolton, have participated in meetings of some anti-Iran terrorist groups that have been responsible for the death of thousands of people, and sometimes finance them .Do you see this as a dual behavior?

** How do you assess Iran’s role in combating terrorism in Middle East, especially in the fight against ISIS? How does Tramp’s recent decision to exit from Syria affect the regional role of Iran, Russia and Turkey? Some say that US decision to withdraw troops from Syria was a christmas gift from Trump to these three, do you agree?

**While SWIFT decided to cut off some Iranian banks from its services, Do you think Iran, Russia and Turkey are able to launch a SWIFT-like format without using US dollars?

**Will the extermination of Nuclear Deal lead to a new crisis in Middle East? In your opinion What is going to be the worst or most alarming crisis in the world and Middle East in the New Year?

**How much energy factor affect US interventions in the Middle East?

**How serious are the differences between US and Europe in supporting the Nuclear Deal? What do you think will happen to European-American relations if these differences are not resolved?

**What effect will the US withdraw from Afghanistan might has on the Subcontinent and Iran-US-Afghan triangle equations? What is the impact of this issue on counter-terrorism approaches in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

**What is your overall assessment of Iran’s 2019 budget and how could Iran decrease budget dependency on oil and oil prices?

**What is the prospect of renting Chabahar port to India as a port exempt from sanctions? What is the inpact of this agreement on the washington and New Delhi relations? India seeks to extend sanctions relief, will it obtain US permits?

**How do you assess the dismissals and changes in the Tramp government? Some argue that during his time, Trump has been trying to put away people that have a far more positive attitude towards Iran, and select others like Bolton, who is famous for his anti-Iran policies. How do you analyze these changes?

**What is your opinion on the appointance of Heather Nauert as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations and the adoption of anti-Iranian resolutions?

**Following the sanctions and Trump’s immigration policies, many Iranians, including Iranian students who are planning to study or already studying in the United States, and especially some patients faces serious problems. As a university professor What is your opinion about these problems?

**Along with changes in the White House, Riyadh saw some changes too. How do you assess the departure of Saudi Foreign Minister? Do both Riyadh and Washington benefit from this decision? Does the departure of adel al jubeir brings hope for a better relationship between Tehran and Riyadh?

**Given the new combination of the congress and the fact that from January these people are supposed to enter the congress and begin their work, and ongoing US government shutdown, do you think that tensions between congress and White House will continue? Will the issue of Iran be one of the main challenges between trump and congress after Democrats take charge?

I replied that I have no idea, as I know nothing about the above topics. I’m no Freud expert.

But then this got me thinking . . . from the journalist’s perspective, I guess it wasn’t so important if I was an expert, as long as I had credentials and was willing to answer the questions. But how many times are people asked these sorts of questions that they’re not qualified to answer?

I remember, years ago, when I was a student and young professor, occasionally seeing statisticians quoted in the newspaper on topics they knew nothing about. They were just bullshitting. Then after the 2000 election, the Gore campaign used a statistical expert who knew nothing about the analysis of political data. That probably wasn’t so consequential—I’m guessing the Supreme Court was going to vote on party lines in any case—but, still, it bugged me that someone was willing to act like an expert on a topic he wasn’t fully conversant with, on a case that was so important. So I’ve always tried to be careful to convey the limitations of my expertise. Lots of people don’t, though. And, as the above exchange illustrates, the demand for expertise can exceed the available supply.


  1. jd says:

    There are quite a few grammatical and spelling errors in the email from this journalist. Did this come from a major news outlet?

  2. cren2 says:

    How does one identify a genuine “journalist” ?

    might there be any imposters out there ?

  3. Steve says:

    There is a Michael Gelman who sits on the board of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Maybe the journalist thought you were that guy. Still not a good sign if the journalist didn’t confirm who you were at first. As a lawyer, when I need an expert I first hire an expert to help me find the real expert. I would have thought journalists would do the same.

    • Adede says:

      How do you know the expert-finding expert is any good? Is it experts all the way down?

      • Steve says:

        Well, you start with an expert in the general field. You vet him best as you can. Then, ask if you need someone more specialized for issues at hand. If I have no familiarity with the field I use my expert to educate me, and do research. Find the sub-specialty that you need and get an expert in that field. In courts, we need experts. Expert testimony is not science, but at least it is an attempt by the legal system to vet scientific claims. But, I would think this approach would be good for journalists too.

  4. > I first hire an expert to help me find the real expert
    Sensible but rare?

    • Steve says:

      Frankly, in the legal world it will depend upon how much money is at stake. Experts want to get paid, but since journalist aren’t paying and experts are just giving out a quote to get their name out or just as a civic duty, it ought to be a lot easier to call up a University Department and say “do you guys have an expert in __?” I know there are good science journalists that must be doing something like this. The journalist should think about experts the same way she thinks about other sources. The want a source who was in the room when it happened. For experts, they need the scientist that actually did research on the question at hand.

  5. Kevin says:

    I agree with others that the questions don’t seem to come from a professional or experienced journalist. But it’s an interesting question. I’ve worked at a think tank and sometimes helped get questions from journalists to the right experts, and yes people get asked a lot of questions they aren’t in a position to answer. In my experience anyway they usually would decline to answer those questions. But the more questions you answer, the more exposure you get, so at the margin there’s a tension between that career incentive for exposure and the need not to drift too far from what you really know a lot about.

    Where it gets more interesting is when experts end up answering so many questions and getting so much exposure they end up being interviewed for high-profile TV news shows, or they get a regular gig as a TV commentator, or just being invited to tons of panels, etc. At that point you end up taking a much wider range of questions where you are much less qualified to comment, and eventually these people who end doing a lot of TV seem to turn into super generalists who are great at quickly summarizing complex issues where they don’t necessarily have any domain expertise, but a lot of times they’re speaking about things they don’t know much about. I guess this is just the path from academic research to “pundit,” but it’s interesting to think about how those pressures play out what it means for how “expertise” is disseminated.

    • Andrew says:


      Some of it is selection bias. Most people don’t like to get quoted in public on topics they know nothing about, but some people do. And they’re the ones who get quoted, over and over again. Professor-of-X-who-knows-nothing-about-Y gets quoted in the newspaper or interviewed on TV about Y, then, later on, a journalist who wants a quote about Z recalls the name of Prof. X and asks him for a quote on topic Z, which Prof. X willingly supplies, as he is happy to be considered an all-around expert.

  6. I am puzzled as to why the journalist asked Andrew these questions. However in my observations over several decades, the answers re predictable. That is I suppose one function of expertise. lol

    • Terry says:

      It is pretty clear the “journalist” is looking for specific answers so a predetermined narrative can be framed as coming from “experts”.

      This is pretty standard “reporting” nowadays.

  7. Eliot J says:

    This story reminds me of one told by Bertrand Russell in his Autobiography. Russell received a multi-page telegram, a facsimile of which was provided, from the historian Will Durant detailing heavy questions wrt the weightiest issues of the day. Russell’s farcical, even arrogant reply was that he attributed whatever happiness he had achieved in his life to defecating twice daily with great regularity.

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