Monday, June 26, 2017

Expertise: The Knowledge of Things Unseen

I've written before about the value and importance of expertise. We used to believe, especially in the realm of science, that experts really did know more than the rest of us. Now, in a world of echo-chamber social media and fake news and "alternative facts", a lot of us (meaning here Americans) have chucked this notion out the window. Many of us now believe that we and our friends know the real truth, and that everybody else is either a dupe or a liar.

One reason why it's easy to fall into this trap is that we feel good about our echo chambers - they make us feel powerful and affirmed, a sort of antidote to the fear we've been taught is the proper response to the modern world. That part of the psychology that leads people to reject expertise and accept otherwise wacky ideas is pretty clear.

But there's another aspect to expertise that actually contributes to its widespread rejection. The nature of expertise is that people who are experts see things that non-experts can't see. They perceive things in the universe that are, quite literally, invisible to the rest of us.

This phenomenon has been well-documented in all sorts of arenas. Elite athletes, for example, have been studied extensively. It turns out that, while they tend to be in excellent health and have certain physical gifts, they're not especially more physically gifted in general than the rest of us. It's that the tens of thousands of hours of practice they put in have rewired their brains so they can perceive things other's can't. That's why the best hitters in professional baseball actually stand a good chance of hitting a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher, traveling at more than 95 miles per hour. He can see things about that ball that are invisible to the rest of us.

The same is true in medicine. An experienced doctor will see in a list of symptoms, or the way a patient answers a question, possible diagnoses that we know nothing about. Nor can we understand the connections between those little bits of information and the much larger issue. Doctors carry around a whole world of knowledge in their heads that is inaccessible to non-experts.

So it goes for nearly every field of human endeavor. Architects see things in buildings that the rest of us miss. Musicians hear things in music we can't hear. Engineers, lawyers, designers, auto mechanics - in almost any human endeavor involving expertise, experts are privy to a world out of reach of the rest of us.

Unfortunately, this makes it easy to dismiss expertise. It's easy to assume that everything you see is everything there is to see. We're pretty good at accounting for the data coming into our senses, but generally terrible about accounting for what's not there. Arthur Conan Doyle immortalized this in his story "Silver Blaze", in which Sherlock Holmes solves the otherwise unsolvable case by observing that a dog didn't bark.

I encounter this all the time in my own area of expertise - politics - because, as John Stewart Mill put it over 100 years ago, politics "is a subject which no one, however ignorant, thinks himself incompetent to discuss". In the political realm, we all think that we can see everything there is to see. And when "experts" come along and try to point out what we can't see, we often dismiss them because, well, we can't see what they're pointing at. We think they're just making it up.

There are two conclusions here. First, humility is not only a moral virtue, it's an intellectual necessity. We all need to know what we don't know (the height of Aristotle's wisdom). Second, we need to make an effort to determine where real expertise lies - not in who shouts the loudest or in who says things we want to believe, but in who has really put in the time and effort to establish a track record. Anybody can claim they're an expert - evaluate those claims carefully, especially when the supposed expert is simply confirming your own biases.

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