The benefits and limitations of being an expert
How to avoid the "gate agent problem" while avoiding groupthink & false expertise
Our concept of what intelligence is has evolved in the Internet era
Quickly finding information & developing true expertise are two distinct skillsets
With so much (mis)information at our fingertips, true expertise is more important
Domain expertise is valuable but limited in scope; we are ignorant in other areas
Diversity of thought is beneficial; leadership is required to make tough decisions
Fooling ourselves on the limits of our expertise
I was thrilled to hear this week that scientists have made a breakthrough in creating a nuclear fusion reaction that produces more energy than it uses. I won’t pretend to explain the significance of this discovery or what it means for our future - but my father could. He devoted his life to finding ways to deploy nuclear energy for good, specifically on simulations of nuclear fusion reactions. I recall spending time in his office as a child surrounded by huge stacks of dot-matrix printouts containing results from thousands of statistical simulations. My mother was an elementary school teacher. Her job was much more relatable, and easy to explain to my friends what she did for a living. To this day, I can’t explain what my father did other than he earned his Ph.D. and was a postdoc for years who continued to assist his thesis advisor in their research. I know that he used computers a lot, co-authored several technical articles in academic journals, and went to Japan for two weeks once for a conference.
With the dawn of the Internet and the explosion of information at our fingertips, it is much harder to determine who is a true expert and who isn’t. I could read a bunch of articles this week about the nuclear fusion breakthrough and attempt to summarize what it means for society, but that does not make me an expert. If I did so, I might credibly fool many people into thinking I was an expert on nuclear fusion. How is this possible? Because others know as little as I do about the subject, a few hours of reading would provide me with enough talking points to be slightly more knowledgeable on the topic.
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Expertise is relative - who is a true expert?
My father is a true expert on nuclear fusion: he devoted years of study and original research to the discipline. Regarding other subjects, my dad’s knowledge is quite limited. For example, Dad always asked me, an economics major, why the United States did not raise marginal tax rates back to over 90%. His logic? Tax rates were as high as 94% in World War II, which preceded incredible prosperity in the country. I spent a long time explaining to him some of the unique facts of that era and why those conditions were not applicable in modern times, but he never gave up hope. I resigned myself to the fact that, while my father was brilliant, there were many areas in which he was reasonably ignorant - as we all are.
As I wrote in the last edition of Forestview, we are forced to strike a balance between areas where we use our unique knowledge as domain experts to go deep with the need for a broad, shallow knowledge of a generalist. The big problem: we usually do not recognize when we move between our areas of expertise and ignorance. Author Tom Nichols's book The Death of Expertise documents this challenge well. Nichols is most alarmed that ignorance has become considered a virtue in many circles. The denial of science, the use of algorithms that feed us what we want to hear to reinforce our biases, and the ability to become wrapped up in our echo chamber all feed into the dismissal of the value that true experts bring to society. If we live in a post-truth world, this implies that we also live in a post-expert world.
The main problem with expertise: tunnel vision
Growing up in a family of educators, I have always valued academics and building a base of knowledge and domain expertise. As an innovator, I have also come to learn the limitations that come with specialized knowledge. Domain experts often go a mile deep but an inch wide; as a corporate innovation leader, I always said that my job was to go a mile wide and an inch deep. I was explicitly tasked with not being responsible for achieving specific metrics to boost current-year performance; instead, my team was fortunate enough to be some of the few individuals charged with pursuing future growth and profitability.
To accomplish this objective, we had to maintain a broad view of the future and how to steer our organization. We would consume research and scouting of emerging technologies and new startups but then turn to internal experts to help us stress test ideas and strategies, products and services, projects and investments. In doing so, we asked teammates to think broadly: to avoid the “gate agent problem” and provide holistic feedback. By contrast, our team needed to be adept at listening as generalists and not quickly dismissing their concerns as specialists. In dismissing hard-earned expertise, you can be doomed to failures that could have been easily prevented if the proper modifications and adjustments were made.
How to value collective intelligence while avoiding analysis paralysis
The key to balancing the generalist and specialist views is to know the limits of your knowledge and seek a broad spectrum of perspectives. First and foremost, acknowledge the areas where you are an expert and where you are not. Next, determine ways to find the expertise you lack - this is often another person or group. You may need to fill some gaps yourself (this is where tools like the Internet and social media can be so valuable). When bringing together a group of experts, you need to find ways to integrate their perspectives and, usually, make decisions on actions to take. It can be helpful if a clear consensus forms, but there will almost always be disagreements, and the best path forward is not obvious. In these cases, it helps to have a process for coming to a resolution. This can be as simple as asking a person of authority to decide or as robust as the evidence-based process advocated by Ray Dalio in his book Principles. New advances such as artificial intelligence can also guide humans as part of a community of knowledge that helps facilitate decision-making.
I hope that Forestview has helped bring you some new perspectives and food for thought in 2022. If you have missed any past editions, you can view the archive and catch up on any articles that may interest you. Be sure to share any items of interest with friends and colleagues and start a conversation! It is through meaningful discussions that the most profound learning occurs.
I’ll be off for the remainder of the year to enjoy the holidays with loved ones, and I hope you have the opportunity to do the same.
Wishing you health and happiness,