11 November 2008

The Three Stages of Understanding (Or, Why We Don't Trust Experts)

In this country, we have a distrust of experts. I have one theory about why that might be.

Systems are defined by interaction. Worse, the influence of any ONE element depends on at least one other element. For instance, two children who are continually undermined by their mother will experience this differently. The impact of the mother will depend upon at least one other element - from differences in personality to fashion daring between the siblings. Systems - from markets to people - are hard to predict.

This is one reason why experts in any domain become tiresome. As people learn more, they become harder to understand. Imagine you are asked to predict the behavior of a system - from an economy to the effect of summer cold on wheat production. There are three levels of understanding that will generate three different answers to the question, "What will happen when ...?"

1. "I don't know." At this level you might be able to define the system but you can't predict it.

2. "I know! It will ...." At this higher stage, you've seen the system respond to this variable before. You can predict based on the example or two from the past.

3. "It depends." At this, the highest stage of knowledge, you know that the influence of any one variable will depend on at least one - maybe dozens - of other variables.

And once an expert launches into his list of variables upon which the system depends, the average person begins to hear, "blah, blah, blah ..."

This is one reason that liars and people at stage two are more likely to be trusted than experts at stage three. They are easier to understand. They sound more confident. This preference is not certain, of course. Because whether or not people will prefer someone at level 2 to someone at level 3 depends on ... blah, blah, blah. But of course, I'm no expert.


cce said...

So the more complex a person's grasp on a topic the less likely he/she is to be believed because he/she sees the shades of gray rather than just black and white and can't speak in terms of the absolute? What does this say about the intellect of the average audience? How many questions can I write in one comment, in one blog post?

Ron Davison said...

I suppose that you could have written one more. Experts are trying to be more sensitive to this, I suppose. Generally, though, they just hire people who pose as experts to opine on TV and radio. They may not be able to predict anything but at least you can follow them.

Big Al said...

I had a damn good chuckle as I started reading your last paragraph: "This is one reason that liars and people at stage two . . ." because I had already decided after reading item #2 that politicians get stuck at stage #2 because they think that's the stage that Leaders hang out at. It's not until they leave office and get hired by Think Tanks (and what the HELL are those, really?) that they "think" they've ascended to stage #3, a stage where they lean back in the recliner while inhaling deeply on a pipe as they ponder questions posed to them.

Ron Davison said...

Level four is even better - that's when you can tell the difference between a level 3 and a level 2. Congrats.