The Expertise Fallacy

A number of years ago a couple we know well visited us, and the talk briefly turned to music. Now, as some readers know, my wife is a former opera singer who’s also taught music on the collegiate level for over fifty years, and who diligently keeps current on developments, techniques, and new works and new findings about old ones. The visitors were both professionals with graduate degrees, one in finance, the other in computer science, certainly well-educated in their fields. But they made a number of assertions about music that were, shall we say, less than well-founded, but became almost confrontational when my wife pointed out that what they believed wasn’t in accord with what most music scholars believed.

My wife, being well behaved, did not persist, but said after they left, “I’d never dream of impugning their statements about finance or computers, let alone be that insistent.” What she didn’t say was that we both knew they’d be outraged if she’d done the same to them.

Just because someone is an expert in a field, or perhaps two or three, doesn’t mean that they’re experts in everything, or that their judgment about matters outside their expertise is anywhere close to comparable to what they know in their own field. But in the arts and in fields where most people have some limited knowledge beyond their recognized expertise, such as writing, the environment, education, and politics, I’ve found that far too many highly educated individuals are woefully ignorant and refuse to realize it, let alone admit it, and often pontificate inaccurately even when their knowledge is limited and/or inaccurate – and then get offended when corrected.

Part of this comes from the belief many people have that because they went through school, they’re experts in education, or because they play an instrument or sing, they’re experts on music, or because they follow politics, they’re political experts. Or because they’re experts in their field, they’re experts in all fields.

Another part occurs because people have a tendency to believe that what they like is good or excellent, whether it is or not and often feel that what they believe is correct even when facts show otherwise.

Part of it is also because knowledge in many fields becomes dated, more quickly than ever before in human history, and even older experts in a field, unless they keep up to date, may not be aware of recent advances or discoveries. (Fear of becoming dated is why I subscribe to and read a wide range of periodicals dealing with science, avionics, economics, environment, politics, archaeology, and history).

But then, since when has ignorance ever stopped anyone from revealing it?

9 thoughts on “The Expertise Fallacy”

  1. Grey says:

    I find that when a person is a boor, it tends to fulminate and self-reinforce because of how people react to it. The easiest way to get such a person to stop talking, as your wife amply demonstrated, is to yourself stop talking. Or perhaps nod, or make some sort of noncommittal noise, or even bravely say that the person is right, in hopes that you can move on with your life.

    Unfortunately, when presented with such a string of successes, there is no cause for introspection. Everyone agrees with them, or is so cowed by their argument that they decline to debate them and they jump to the wrong conclusion that they must be quite smart.

    As the person travels through life, more and more they are convinced they are a genius capable of successfully applying their vast intellect to literally anything. When confronted, they’re unable to comprehend the pushback, and simply restate their position, loudly and more forcefully, as if you didn’t hear them the first time. Perhaps it is a form of learned narcissism, or just narcissism.

    You might enjoy “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters” a 2017 book by Tom Nichols, which has a new version out shortly with updates on the social media age.

    1. KTL says:

      Hi Grey,

      Tom Nichols did hit the nail on the head in his initial publication. Thanks for the heads up on the update. I suspect that his take on the issue as it reflects the effects of rapid communication will not be reassuring.

      Perhaps more concerning is the possible cultural implications of people speaking up with unfounded facts/opinions/diatribes in our public interactions. Yes, at one time these were not as common in normal conversation so we tended to let them pass. But our cultural norms today aren’t sufficient to suppress this kind of behavior. You know, ‘free speech’ and all that. One was often a bit ashamed to express an opinion that was offensive or porrly thought out before stated. Not so much anymore. One can always find solice in a common bond to others with similar positions via the internet and social media.

  2. Hanneke says:

    I remember something from Paul Gallico about that, in one of his ghost-mysteries; I think it was in The hand of Mary Constable, or maybe in Too many ghosts. Sorry, I can’t look up the exact words now. The gist was that people who think of themselves as well-educated scientists were the ones who could be most convincingly fooled by a con, and would hold on most tightly to that false belief, as they are convinced of the correctness of their own observations.

    The saying about a little knowledge being dangerous also seems very apt in this case, as people who know a little about a subject often think they know a lit; while people who know a lot know there is still more to learn. It didn’t become a cliché saying for nothing.

    In this case it also sounds as if it was compounded by the social norms around men and women in conversation. Especially ‘mansplaining’, where it’s considered okay for a man to explain to a woman all about something he knows much less about than she does, while a woman explaining things she knows much more about to a man is often not seen in the same way, or as acceptable at all – it apparently infringes on the sense of male superiority.
    And possibly the effect where in mixed groups, at least on intellectual topics, women are expected to speak much less and listen much more. There was a study done on classroom participation in an equally represented group, where male students said the women students were talking more than half the time when they were in fact doing no more than a bit above 17% of the talking: more than that was seen as the women dominating the conversation too much, and not giving the men equal opportunity to express themselves. This may have become dated, the balance may have shifted a bit, but as far as I can see not very far; certainly it has not equalised entirely.

  3. KevinJ says:

    People with “I’m the smart one” as part of their self-image can fall into this trap very easily. They learn early on that they come to better conclusions, or do so more quickly, than their peers, and then take that too far, and think they’re always right on everything.


  4. Postagoras says:

    Well said, Grey, KTL, Hanneke, and KevinJ!

    Jerks can be ignorant or knowledgeable. The very wise columnist Carolyn Hax suggests responding to them with a flat “Wow.” It’s a noncommittal reply that allows the conversation to move on.

  5. Matthew Runyon says:

    Out of curiosity, what are the periodicals you subscribe to? I’m not overly interested in avionics, but for the rest I try to do the same, and I’m always on the look out for better ways to do that.

    1. World Archaeology, Current World Archaeology, History Today, Discover Britain, Aviation Week, Wired, Scientific American, New Scientist, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Science, Resources for the Future, Audubon, Sierra, The New York Times, BBC Science Focus — those are the ones I can recall off the top of my head. I also used to subscribe to The Economist, and I subscribe to several proprietary online economic newsletters.

  6. alecia flores says:

    The incidence of your ‘friends’ insistence on their expertise in everything is a perfect example of our current political state. Do they happen to be MAGAts?

    1. No… but they do tend to look down on professionals in “the arts.”

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