Expertise and Humility

Every year, when research paper season rolls around, I always have a few students that want to cite themselves, use their own ‘knowledge’, or consider themselves experts in their chosen topic. It takes a bit of convincing before they’re willing to acknowledge that maybe they’re not experts in their field at the age of 16 or 17. And yet, something about being a teenager often combines a few years of experience at something and a cocksure attitude and turns out a world full of young ‘experts’. I know this not only because I see it in my classroom, but because I was exactly that same kind of teenager.

I tell students that there are two things I remotely consider myself to be an expert in now that I’m in my mid-thirties, and even then only a beginner expert: teaching secondary English at American curriculum international schools and the field of Octavia Butler studies (within which I wrote my masters thesis). For one, those are very specific fields, because the more expertise we gain, the more specialized we become. Also, while these are the fields I know the most about, have the most experience in, and could readily hold an in-depth conversation with other experts in, they’re also the ones I best know my own deficiencies and areas of necessary growth.

Through the ages, those that we consider the greatest thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and other brilliant people, almost always hit upon this truth. The more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t know. Socrates, Aristotle, Einstein, John Lennon, and so many others came to this realization. We’ve got the Dunning-Kruger effect that charts this phenomenon, and so it only makes sense that teenagers especially often fall into a place where it is easy to overestimate their knowledge and understanding; they’re not young children anymore, after all.

Unfortunately, way too many adults don’t grow beyond that either. I know that in some areas, I fall into this category as well. If I’m watching a parkour video, part of my brain is saying, “yeah, I can probably do that” or I’m very convinced that I could have easily scored that goal that the striker so blatantly missed. I was certain it couldn’t be that hard to drive a Formula 1 car until I saw Richard Hammond (a guy who earns his living driving cars) barely manage to get one around a track. I was also convinced I knew how economics worked and what each country was doing wrong, right up until I read up on some basic economics and realized how little I actually knew. We see this happen in everything, from governance, economics, health, and business, to the arts, athletics, and religion. It all seems so simple from the outside.

This is where humility comes in. Maybe we should all approach new topics or areas where we have little experience with a posture of humility. It’s very hard for most of us to admit we don’t know something and so we bluster our way through. Often, we teachers have been very bad at modeling humility for students; I’ve had to be very intentional about responding to student questions with integrity and saying “I don’t know that yet” or “I’m not sure, maybe you should look it up and then tell me.” Because my natural instinct is to answer each question with my gut intuition and make myself seem more knowledgeable than I am. Humility is a prime virtue and we’re not always doing a great job of teaching it.

Similarly, there is a glut of pseudo-experts in every shadowy cranny willing to hammer half-reasonable theories and skewed knowledge into unquestioning minds. When we don’t acknowledge the relevance of expertise in all areas, we easily become puffed up demagogues. A friend of mine recently re-posted this and it rang very true:

“Confirmation bias exists, and only fools think they are free of it. To paraphrase Asimov, your ignorance is not the same as their experience. Genuinely smart people look for answers from people who are smarter than themselves. Only ignorant people believe their guess is as good as anyone else’s.”

Appreciation of expertise then allows us to hold our beliefs and convictions more loosely. In so many areas, it’s not what people think or believe that bothers me, but the way they hold that belief. When our ‘Truth’ is oozing out, dead and bloodied, from clenched fists, there can’t be much life left in it, no matter what it once was. Instead, we should hold our values and beliefs in open palms, with humility, so that there is room for our understanding and faith to grow, expand, change, and become better. That’s how we hold with humility.

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