The demise of expertise, the democratization of information, the glorification of amateurism, and the death of debate in America.
By David Todd McCarty | Monday, August 3, 2020
There was a time when most of society existed in a state of ignorant bliss. Most people were generalists and common knowledge was fairly universal and passed on easily from one person to another. If you were a farmer, you learned farming from your father and the other farmers in your village. Everyone was working with the same body of knowledge, and generally speaking, any innovation was widely shared. The same held true for cooks, blacksmiths and shepherds.
There were those who had higher knowledge, who were formally educated, who could read and write, held other specialized gifts like healers or storytellers, or were otherwise separated from the common man in clear and obvious ways. Expert knowledge was not merely something to be sought, but a gift from the gods. Leaders were more often born, not made.
Consequently, everyone did not expect to have higher knowledge. We weren’t caught up in the notion of fairness or equality. It would not have occurred to us to believe that everyone was equal, because it was often quite evident that we were not. There were elements of class, wealth, education and station that helped to maintain a civil society.
“It’s half an inch of water, and you think you’re gonna drownJohn Prine
That’s the way that the world goes ‘round”
It was no small thing that in the early days of civilization, without your tribe, village or community, there was little purpose or meaning in life. In fact, the ability to sustain life was widely seen as completely integral to the value of the group. You protected each other from wild animals and other tribes. You divided the workload and shared in the harvest. Every person was valuable so those that operated outside of norms, were typically elevated. There is some evidence that many of those who ended up as shaman and healers, we would today describe as being on the autism spectrum. They have different abilities and noticed things others did not. They were not discarded, they were celebrated.
It’s a pervasive myth in American society that our country was built on the idea that everyone is equal, when in fact it merely proposed the idea of treating everyone equally under the law. Even so, they were really only talking about white men with money, so you sort of have to question the whole idea that they were all that terribly virtuous, let alone infallible.
Today we find ourselves at a crossroads in this grand experiment with democracy here in America, where we seem incapable of working together or agreeing on much of anything. We are not split by ethnicity, religion, geography, language or any of the other things that typically tear a country apart. It is tribal no doubt, but they are tribes of our own choosing, self-assigned and determined based on a whole range of factors that have little to do with genealogy or class.
We are currently drowning in tribalism however—an insurmountable challenge to get beyond the boundaries of our self-constrained worlds—and we place the blame for this inability to engage in an informed debate of ideas, squarely within the polarization of our current political environment.
At first glance, we seem unable to exchange ideas or even to disagree with any level of decorum because we are so entrenched in our own ideology, so firm in our beliefs, that we are unable to hear the other person, or so goes the popular wisdom. But I think the poverty of our discourse has less to do with polarization and more to do with depth. It’s not how far apart we are, but how deep we are capable of going, that keeps us from connecting.
It’s far too dismissive and egocentric to assume that people you disagree with are stupid, especially if you count yourself among the few who are not. But it’s a bit more reasonable to assume that even a well-informed person’s understanding of current events, is in reality, only about half an inch deep.
In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low abilities, constantly overestimate their ability. They not only fail to understand their lack of ability, they tend to overinflated their own superiority. Without the self-awareness to practically identify their position against any sort of standard, people with low abilities cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence. It is the cognitive bias of illusionary superiority.
“If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent,” explained Dunning-Kruger. “The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
Conspiracy theories are formed and followed by those incompetent people willing to dismiss the expertise of highly-qualified people, and instead attribute to these experts a wicked desire to lie and take advantage of the masses, in order to compensate for their own lack of understanding of the world around them. Incompetent people believe that if they find something difficult to understand, then everyone finds it difficult. If they don’t know it, no one knows it. So they distrust governments, institutions, experts, and smart people in general. They put their trust in common sense rather than scholarly learning, in their gut over science.
Far too many people you come across in life rely on knowledge they’ve picked up, regardless of its source and despite any vetting for accuracy, based on how it fits in with their own world view. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.
Apophenia is a psychological term for the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things. It is most often associated with schizophrenics and degenerate gamblers.
In the former, is may be defined as seeing connections accompanied by a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness. Delusional thoughts that are self-referential, and over-interpreted. If you think John Lennon or Justin Timberlake are singing about you, or that bits and pieces of the nightly newscast are speaking directly to you, you might be suffering from apophenia, on your way to full-fledged schizophrenia of course, But it can be much less fantastic and still be just as delusional.
If you examine the rationalization of gamblers, you will find that apophenia presents itself as a propensity to seek patterns in random information. A common example is to conclude that if a particular event occurs more frequently than normal in the past, it is less likely to occur in the future.
For instance, you may believe that a particular roll of the dice is likely to happen because it hasn’t happened recently, which seems logically practical, if not statistically relevant. This is erroneous thinking, having been well-established that the probability of such future events does not depend on what has happened in the past.
Taking all this into account, while your average American may have a broad understanding of civics, government, criminal and civic law, public policy and history, it tends to be about a half-inch deep. Add to this shallow knowledge, the propensity to trust your own instincts and reject expertise, and your own tendency to make associations that fit emotionally if not logically, and a media environment built for sound bites not in-depth reporting, and the result is a whole cadre of people who you can’t possibly have a debate of ideas of with.
It’s a bit like water-skiing on the surface of the ocean and assuming you have a good idea of what’s going on beneath you. You may think you can see for miles, and have a grand understanding of the scope of the problem, but have no idea what lies just below the surface, and so can’t imagine the dangers that exist in reality.
The internet has been a wonderful innovation for the democratization of information. It has given nearly everyone on the planet access to information previously only accessible to intellectuals, scholars and experts. Where there were once gatekeepers to the library of the world’s knowledge, now anyone with a smartphone can look up anything and discover an official looking post filled with unvetted misinformation and lies. Where we once relied a few trusted institutions to disseminate information about our world via newspapers, radio stations and television news programs, we now have every idiot with a blog and a Twitter account spreading their own cockamamy theories to the world. When everyone is an expert, no one is an expert.
There is a small, unassuming sign on the road in the Nubra Valley of northern Ladakh, India that reads simply “Experts Expect the Unexpected.” What is interesting about this sign is less about what is says about the knowledge of the expert, and more about what it says about the rest of us. The reason an event is unexpected is because we lack the specialized knowledge or experience to recognize what would be obvious to another. We can’t see the patterns or don’t understand the causation that would be self-evident to someone who could.
In a world of uncertainty, expectation is an event that is considered the most likely to happen. If something happens that is not at all expected, it is a surprise. The child and the idiot, are constantly surprised by the simplest things, because they have so few expectations.
An expectation, which is a belief that is centered on the future, may or may not be realistic. To the uninitiated, the result of a less advantageous result than expected is disappointment, while the result of an unexpected outcome is surprise. The expert is never surprised by the thing they expected to happen.
The flip side of Dunning-Kruger effect is known as the Imposter Syndrome, which is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” This is most common among highly accomplished individuals, especially ones who have the knowledge, experience and expertise to understand the value of their particular talent or set of skills. The irony of these cognitive biases, is that those suffering DK are supremely overconfident, while those suffering from IS can be terribly insecure.
This is a classic mismatch. You have one person, we will call Keisha, trying discuss a topic that may be quite complex and highly nuanced, with a lot of grey areas that would lead any reasonable person to tread lightly and so may not feel entirely confident. Keisha is talking to Joe who knows a bunch of talking points he’s heard on television, with no context or evidence to back up his claims, and most likely a false premise that has long been disproven by experts in the field. On top of it all, Joe bounces from one talking point to another, as if this somehow creates a logical and cohesive argument, which it does not.
Keisha is unable to follow the logic of Joe’s argument, because there is none, so she tries to explain to Joe that his premise is faulty, so his argument is not logical, but before she can get to the point, Joe moves onto a completely divergent argument that might makes he clear he doesn’t understand the difference between correlation and causation.
Keisha is left with the unfortunate choice of arguing with a fool, or simply listening politely. Taking her silence as defeat, Joe is convinced he’s won the argument. With his dizzying intellect and ability to pull out of his ass, not just one argument, but a string of them, he has in his mind, won the battle of wits.
No real information was exchanged. Joe has parroted things he’s heard, mixed with some of his own ideas, in a word salad representing a false premise built on an illogical fantasy. To use a sports analogy Joe might understand, he is not trying to explain the finer points of baseball, or give you his ideas on the inefficacy of the designated hitter, he is taking one play from a highlight reel of the 1986 Super Bowl, and using it to explain why the New York Yankees are more like to win games because they have better looking uniforms than the Pittsburgh Penguins.*
Joe’s confirmation bias also allows him to dismiss anything Keisha has to say as part of a subversive Marxist plot to undermine Christianity, propagated by the liberal media out to destroy America and confiscate his guns. This is a hard argument to combat when you’re trying to discuss whether or not to open schools in the middle of a pandemic, and not whether the illuminati is operating a chain of pedophilia-driven, pizza parlors.
Keisha walks away shaking her head and Joe high fives his buddy Frank who considers Joe the “political” one in the group. Everyone is actually a bit dumber for having had the conversation. Joe is even more convinced of the efficacy his own insane ideas and Keisha is hesitant to bother having another conversation with Joe ever again. Maybe worse, Keisha wonders if she is wrong, not in what she knows, but in how she is trying to present her ideas.
The problem isn’t with how Keisha is presenting her ideas, any more than the Democratic Party has a problem with their messaging. The problem is the chasm between shallow knowledge and in-depth analysis, between catch-phrases and nuanced policy initiatives, between campaigning and governing, between glitz and substance.
The one aspect of the Imposter Syndrome that is most problematic is that experts, or high-ability individuals, often underestimate the difficulty of many of the tasks they consider straightforward and undemanding. Another way to think about it, is they overestimate the abilities of those with low abilities.
“They can’t be that stupid,” they think.
You don’t have to look further than our current President to see this phenomenon in practice. Donald Trump believes his gut is more valuable than anything any so-called experts have to say. He knows more about the military than the generals. He knows more about diseases than scientists. He trusts his feelings, not facts. He believes he has natural abilities.
He regularly refers to things he has just learned, as things he thinks most people don’t know, because he’s just learned of them. “You know,” he says, “a lot of people don’t know that.”
He claims that “no one understands” complex subjects, when the reality is, he doesn’t understand them. “They don’t really know what to call it,” he said about the coronavirus, months after it had been identified.
He makes connections that are not there. He confuses correlation with causation. He is entirely unaware how out of depths he is, and he believes he’s killing it and honestly can’t understand why he isn’t getting more credit for his accomplishments. He is the mascot for the Deplorables of America, which is why they love him so.
He’s the one person that doesn’t make them feel stupid.
*The Super Bowl is the championship game of the National Football League (NFL). The New York Yankees are a baseball team (MLB). The Pittsburg Penguins are an ice hockey team (NHL).