Tyler Cowen, writing in Marginal Revolution:
Ever wonder about the vast universe of critically acclaimed aesthetic masterworks, most of which you do not really fathom? If you dismiss them, and mistrust the critics, odds are that you are wrong and they are right. You do not have the context to appreciate those works. That is fine, but no reason to dismiss that which you do not understand. The better you understand context, the more likely you will see how easily you can be missing out on it.
Often, we don’t know what we don’t know — yet we act as if we did. Perhaps not in neurosurgery, but certainly in domains such as politics or (as Cowen points out) the arts. “I know what I like, and I don’t like that” presumes that “I” has enough background to judge “that.” Often, we don’t, but we don’t know it. Dunning-Kruger and all that.
If we haven’t spent lots of time studying epidemiology, perhaps we shouldn’t hold strong opinions about the pandemic. Yes, it affects us personally. But we don’t understand much else about the situation. As such, our opinions aren’t worth much. We don’t like hearing that; our culture elevates lived experience over other considerations. But in most domains, our experience is quite limited.
That’s the essence of expertise: some people know more about some stuff than we do. One of the advantages of civilization is not having to rediscover everything from first principles. We delegate parts of our understanding to others who have the time and inclination to dig deeper. We’ve specialized knowledge, just as we’ve specialized labor. Epistemic humility is in order.
Thus, there are two paths forward: we can trust experts (while acknowledging that nobody has perfect understanding and knowledge is continually evolving), or we can learn about the subject ourselves. The latter requires that we invest time, energy, and attention.
It can be done. With the internet, we have easier access to greater amounts of information than ever before. Alas, much of what is published online is crap. So, even if we invest time in becoming “educated,” we might end up with a poor conceptual model.
In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin calls for teaching (and learning) information literacy — i.e., the criteria to determine whether particular information is worth being folded into our model of the world. Levitin writes,
More so than at any other time in history, it is crucial that each of us take responsibility for verifying the information we encounter, testing it and evaluating it. This is the skill we must teach the next generation of citizens of the world, the capability to think clearly, critically, and creatively.
To put it another way: must develop a sort of ur-contextual awareness: the ability to determine which models to trust. Perhaps it’s the ultimate expertise: a refined ability to draw out signals from an increasingly noisy channel; to distinguish expertise from bullshit.
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