Why You Shouldn’t Implicitly Trust Experts

Awhile back, I used to work as a “software application architect” at an aerospace company. And while this company wasn’t the biggest name in the business, neither were we some unknown. If I listed some of the projects going on while I was there, you’d probably recognize some of them even if you aren’t a big fan of space exploration. It was a good company with a lot of highly competent workers that has some genuinely impressive accomplishments of which we were rightly proud.

The team I was a part of provided software tools to the engineers there. In other words, you could legitimately call many of my internal customers “rocket scientists.” We were part of an effort to move away from an outdated, paper-based system for managing spacecraft parts, design changes, and so forth. I also helped support the software we configured and wrote, which required a modest amount of customer interaction.

But the thing about doing tech support for intelligent and talented aerospace engineers is that it’s really not much different than doing tech support for your grandma. There’s the same resistance to change when learning new technology. There’s the same failure to try to read and understand the directions. There’s the same general attitude that computers are a kind of voodoo. You come away with the same kind of stupid human stories that every other tech support worker has.

At one point, we had to implement a timeout in our software in an effort to reduce some concurrent licensing costs. The problem was the possibility that somebody could be logged out without saving their work. So we wanted to be absolutely sure that every user understood that after 30 minutes of inactivity, the software would be forcibly log them out to end their session.

We knew most of them didn’t read our email announcements and would just click away any popup without reading it, so we decided to implement an extremely simple reading comprehension test at login. We added a single sentence of giant bright red text to the login window telling them that they would be logged out after 30 minutes of inactivity. Then we asked them for the number of minutes in the message. They could not log in until they entered “30.” It was so simple my 6-year-old could do it.

We had to eliminate the quiz after only a couple hours because our help desk was completely overwhelmed with rocket scientists who couldn’t figure it out.

Every single call I took–every last one–all I had to do was ask “Is there any kind of error message or notification on the screen?” Then they would say “oh yeah,” read it out loud to me and immediately ask, “Oh, so I just have to enter ’30?'” And that was it. Encouraging them to read THE GIANT RED TEXT was literally the only action needed.

So it was a learning experience for everyone. And in the end, the whole snafu did make sure that everyone know about the timeout.  But the most important takeaway is this:  Our culture tries very hard to create a glamour around our experts and elevate them above the rest. But the more time one spends around experts, the more that glamour fades.  Even the fanciest sports car is eventually going to break down and rust away the same way any other car will.

As I said, these weren’t stupid people. Far from it. The problem, if you want to call it that, was just that they were people. The mistake they made was a very human one–you expect things to work the same as they did the day before and so you unconsciously tune out the “clutter” that interferes with that. Rocket scientists aren’t immune to this or any other common human failing. Being intelligent, well-trained, and working competently in a high-level discipline doesn’t change human nature in the slightest. Pick any cliché you want: missing the forest for the trees, thinking the grass is always greener on the other side, crying wolf, power corrupting, fear being contagious, or anything else. Expert humans fail at Aesop’s fables just as readily as non-expert humans.

This is as true at a group level as it is on an individual level. A mob of experts will exhibit the same typical behavior as any other kind of mob. There will be peer pressure. There will be loss of personal responsibility. There will be echo chambers, increasing emotional resonance, and punishment for those who deviate. No matter how smart or credentialed, humans remain irrevocably fallen and make completely mundane mistakes on a regular basis.

Americans must write this reality onto our hearts because we are currently under siege by various groups of experts who think their training and discipline puts them above the criticism of normies. They are above nothing. Our medical experts are panicking over a bad flu. Our expert journalists are liars. Our political experts are fools and tyrants. This isn’t because they’re especially bad. It’s because there’s nothing special about them at all. There are the usual bad actors. There are their usual sycophants. There are the usual people just going along to get along. And through it all, there are the same stupid mistakes we all make.

Expertise and intelligence do nothing to inoculate us against human foibles. All they do is facilitate more creative and harmful expressions of our failings.

So don’t be afraid to skeptically question experts. If they truly know their material they should also be able to explain it to someone who does not. At worst, you’ll be wrong and end up coming away knowing more than when you started. But in the course of that conversation, it usually becomes apparent whether they’re making the kinds of human mistakes that anyone can recognize.

And if there’s one thing we don’t lack today, it’s constant chatter from experts which we can read and judge. The masks are off for anyone willing to be skeptical.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
This entry was posted in Culture, Musings, Politics, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why You Shouldn’t Implicitly Trust Experts

  1. OKRickety says:

    Having worked for most of my adult life as a software developer for various types of companies, I fully agree that people are very often incapable of reading with understanding.

    “So don’t be afraid to skeptically question experts. If they truly know their material they should also be able to explain it to someone who does not.”

    They might truly know their material but be so out of touch with the real world that they are unable to explain it.

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