Losing Faith in Expertise?

We are moving toward a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based collapse of any division between     professionals and laypeople. Tom Nichols
, US Naval War College

Tom Nichols’ engrossing study of how America lost faith in expertise–and why that’s a giant problem–is long overdue. On numerous occasions I’ve listened to one of the least informed persons in the room hold court, confidently lecturing me and others with a stream of banalities and misinformation. And it’s not just at a cocktail party. A few weeks ago a masseuse was talking with great confidence about national policy regarding healthcare, a subject about which she knew absolutely nothing. Since I was captured on a massage table, I merely grunted, but I wanted to throttle her. 

Nichols reminded me that my experience was about the Dunning-Kruger effect, where research revealed that the less skilled or competent you are, the more confident that you’re actually very good at what you do. I was listening to that conclusion with my masseur–determined to find another masseur the next time.

But to move on from my frustration and venting, here’s Dunning’s conclusion from 2014: A whole battery of studies . . . have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of   cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge. College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades; low-performing chess players, bridge players, and medical students, and elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license, similarly overestimate their competence by a long shot.  

Why don’t the incompetent get it?
Kruger and his colleagues took the original research further, asking why the unskilled are unaware. Their finding is that: Poor performers grossly overestimate their performances because their incompetence deprives them of the skills needed to recognize their deficits. Five studies demonstrated that poor performers lack insight into their shortcomings even in real world settings and when given incentives to be accurate. . . .It was lack of insight into their own errors (and not mistaken assessments of their peers) that led to overly optimistic estimates among poor performers.

In other words, poor performers lack the skills of “metacognition.” They can’t step back and look at their own thinking processes in perspective. Good singers know when they’ve hit a sour note. Good painters know when they need to toss their artwork–and begin again. And good coaches know when they didn’t connect with their clients–and they’ve got to start over.

How to improve?
Let’s suppose as a professional you’d like to improve your assessments of others. The beginning place is with two strategies from research. First, don’t draw conclusions about another person’s incompetence until you’ve got five or six separate examples of their incompetence in a given subject. Then, discount, discount and discount your conclusions about their behavior. Can it be explained as something other than pure

Two rules  
The human is very complex. Often fantastically complex–and doesn’t what he or she is thinking or doing. (That’s why you can’t believe the feedback you get from someone.)

A real nerd is a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it. (So if you drew a smart conclusion, there may be five other different conclusions you could have drawn about the same experience. Which one or two are the better?)

Nichols’ warning is spot-on. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.


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