Do experts really encourage progress?
Why we can’t always rely on the smart guys to envision a future
“Paradigm shift” — a battered poster child of corporate-speak, and probably my least favourite jargon (alongside “deliverables”, which is a personal vendetta). Anything tagged to organisational transformation and progress is abstracted into this esoteric phrase, and unjustifiably so — not when we could just use the word “change” and cut down on three whole syllables.
Really makes you wonder, where did the phrase originate from? It was the philosopher Thomas Kuhn who theorised in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that the advancement of science is essentially periods of stable growth done within the same framework (“paradigms”), punctured by unsolvable anomalies that cause a revision of the fundamental concepts or practices in that period (“revolutions”). A paradigm shift occurs where new discoveries no longer corroborate, or even come into conflict with the current paradigm. Today, the concept has evolved to capture the general idea of major changes in prevailing norms, be it personal, managerial or systemic. The fact that it is a buzzword speaks volumes about the acknowledgement and adoption of this philosophy.
Questions start popping up when I run the perception of expertise through this idea. When you think of an expert, you would think of somebody highly competent in a particular area, in terms of skill and/or knowledge. At first instinct, you would tend to assume that this expert is more intelligent, more qualified, and more reliable in their judgement than you are; given this, you might expect them to be at the forefront of knowledge progression in that field of study. If they weren’t, why are they always cited everywhere from mainstream commentary to academia?
Let’s circle back (cough) to that notion of progress as laid out by Kuhn. Can we really, truly say that experts are the people driving paradigms, revolutions and paradigm shifts?
Expert vs. Paradigm: Too much knowledge is a bad thing
I put to you that “experts” as we know them are only really experts within the paradigm they operate in, and they are not always driving the progress of their field of study, even though logically it seems to be the case.
“But wait, aren’t the experts so devoted to their craft that they are more likely to notice idiosyncrasies among the things they have accepted as convention?” you might argue, and intuitively, that makes sense. Well, yes and no. If you compare me (a middling college freshman who loves grumbling about semantics) with my friend (a medical student aspiring to become an oncologist), you would be far more confident in guessing who is more likely to find a cure for cancer among current scientific progress. On the other hand, there exists things like this AI software that was designed to distinguish between pastries wrapped in plastic becoming a cancer detection algorithm because someone noticed that bread kind of looked like cancer cells. It took someone qualified to realise that it could be integrated into medical science, but the AI was created from a completely unexpected place. It still drives home the point that in order to make improvements, we do not always have to look to who we perceive as experts and see what they are preoccupied with, or what is “trendy” within their field. You don’t have to be an insider to herald revolution, nor should you rely on revolution to come from insiders.
I would even go as far as to say that instead of advancing thought conventions, experts who have amassed knowledge in the current paradigm may actually allow their siloed knowledge to dictate their judgement and actions, and this could translate to a smaller chance of bringing about breakthroughs or scientific revolution. Experts are not infallible, and they can be bad at their own game.
How? As the expert becomes more learned, reinforcing his own view of the world, he simultaneously attains a status where few are able or willing to question his authority or knowledge. He becomes more dogmatic in his opinions, adamant that he is right and other experts are wrong, and less willing to entertain inadequacies of his models, which only grow as his beliefs become more skewed.
Hedgehogs and Foxes
Have you heard of the hedgehogs and the foxes? They represent two types of thinkers; respectively, hedgehogs are more specialised and rigid thinkers, while foxes are broader thinkers. The characterisation comes from a Greek saying — “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing”. Political scientist Philip Tetlock studied decision-making in subject experts, majority of whom are classified as hedgehogs, and found that they were far worse at predicting outcomes than the foxes. Hedgehogs often subscribe to one set of overarching theories (their extensive knowledge of the paradigm) that can justify everything, while foxes stay more fickle. And when confronted with opposing evidence, hedgehogs curl up into a prickly, defensive ball, demonstrating a reluctance to change.
If you’re too much of an insider, you’re likely surrounded by hedgehogs and it’s hard to get good perspective. For hedgehog experts, their knowledge effectively frames their worldview in a deterministic manner. Viewing every world event through their own keyhole makes it easy to create compelling stories and explanations that rationalise their predictions, whether right and wrong, and to tell them with authority. And it’s these experts who are more entertaining, when compared with a commentator who sits on the fence and tells you that this uncertain situation could go both ways. We don’t like uncertainty and we are influenced by the power of narrative — a dangerous combination indeed.
That said, it’s worth considering why it is still good to give experts a voice, something about how it more likely helps us distil signals in a noisy world of diverse views. The alternative, ensuring mass scientific literacy and eliminating fallaciousness is a very lofty goal. Sometimes I like to think about how the world would be like if it was. Efficient? Utopian? Maybe even boring (since I would have nothing to write about then). It is precisely the unattainable nature of it that makes it nice to dream about.
Why do hedgehog experts wind up like this? Fundamentally, as humans, we don’t like being wrong or uncertain or uncomfortable, and it could be that experts seek respite within the paradigm, within their realm of knowledge, and would rather be in a position where they are given authority, listened to and agreed with. It’s a bit depressing to think that we might have deliberately delayed revolution because many people in the cockpit with all the resources to enable it prioritise their basal desires over pursuit of scientific advancement, but that’s pretty cynical (I think).
To clarify, I am not writing this to discount the value of expertise. Everyone brings something to the table, and having subject experts you can ask for help is a great thing. They can serve as gateways for you to explore new domains and build your knowledge base. Their facts and findings are valuable, but that doesn’t mean their opinions should always be taken the same way.
If we can’t distinguish between the experts or trust them entirely, where does that leave us among all this noise? You’ve got to rely on ourselves to brave the storm, because it doesn’t clear up for you. Ask yourself, “Am I a hedgehog, or a fox?” — that’ll start you somewhere.