Are we less willing to listen to experts who disagree with our world view?

By | October 14, 2017

Yes, I think so, and that’s a bad sign. . . I saw this book at the library and was intrigued by the cryptic title: Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (affiliate link), by Tom Nichols. I flipped through the book and landed on this high-powered statement:

“The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. It’s unprecedented and dangerous.”

Whoa, like it. I agree with it. I see / feel this everyday. Somehow, somewhere we become too anesthetized to facts, data, expertise, and science. Instead, we only listen to the pundits who preach our world view, and assume others are idiots or are biased. Worse yet, our opinions are often calcified and immovable. Not a good sign.

Nichols identifies many of the factors that drive this vicious cycle of ambivalent ignorance.  I took a bunch of notes, but the easiest way to explain it will be a fishbone diagram. I bucketed these 16 contributing factors below. Not sure Nichols would agree with all of them, but they are definitely 80% right. Once a consultant, always a consultant, right?

1. Hubris. Simply put, we think we are smarter/better than we really are. We all suffer from some over-estimation effect. Worse yet, there is the Dunning-Kruger effect where people with low ability (in some area or skill) are unable to recognize their incompetence.  Scary, I know.

2. Too much noise (online). Now that all the world’s information is at our fingertips (think: Google, Siri, Alexa), it’s only natural that we feel smarter. Data is a commodity.; it’s everywhere, and anyone can access it. We are all smart. We are all experts, right? Uh. . . no. Not true.

Written words on the internet, voices on the AM radio, photos on Twitter is data, not understanding or insight. Data is at the bottom of the pyramid.  Data < Information < Understanding < Insight < Wisdom.

“[An expert] is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and how to avoid them.”  – Physicist Werner Heisenberg

Nichols argues that unlimited information is making us dumber. Sounds right to me.

3. Disappointment with experts. Experts – in any field – are just human; they can let us down. Experts can lie, be wrong, and be self-serving. Think of recent scandals and moral-failings of government officials, bankers, priests, lawyers, consultants, auditors etc. . That said, just because you read about 1 expert being wrong, does not mean all of established science and management practice is wrong. Don’t extrapolate from a few bad apples.

4. Limited information. Everyone likes to be right. No one wants to drive to work, listen to news, and hang out with friends – and debate all the time. So what do we do?  We self-select news, friends, and people that suit our world view. It’s natural, and it’s a bad habit. We create safe, biased, and insular intellectual cocoons. As Nichols points out, “democracies are noisy places”, and we should be willing, eager, motivated to engage in the debate.

5. Lack of civility. This is a big issue for me. Strong believer in idea fight club – that the best ideas should surface to the top. Yet, we know that diversity only works when there is trust. Without trust, diversity leads to fighting and chaos. Trust is a must. Nichols argues that all the distance and anonymity of the Internet creates massive distrust. As a result, conversations are exhausting, “public debate over almost everything devolves into trench warfare.”

As consultants, what does this mean to us?

Make change happen. As consultants, we are in the business of taking disparate, messy data and telling a story that executives can use to make change. This often involves breaking through intransigent factions who are irrationally tied to “their” point of view. Use data to break through.

Nurture intellectual curiosity in yourself and your teams. Yes, ambition and skills will take you 1/2 way through your career, but you will run out of fuel. Curiosity, fun of learning, and the pride of ownership, will take you the rest of the way.

Be aware of false equivalentsHonestly folks – just because you can find something online that argues against many decades of proven science does not mean that is true, proven, or even provable.

Watch your information diet. Tell this to students all the time, but subscribe to at least 1 news show, or radio station that you disagree with. Stress test your thinking. Nichols said it best, “Learning new things require patience and the ability to listen to other people.”

Stay humble. Lots to learn. Does not end with MBA. Remember – once you stop learning, you are getting old.

P.S. Just watched Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (affiliate link), which documents a series of 10 debates between the grandfathers of punditry: William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal. Those 1968 debates (first Republican and Democratic conventions broadcast in color TV) were harbingers of the next 50 years of American political talk shows.  They wisely had some warnings for us.

“I think these great debates are absolutely nonsense. The way they’re are set up, there is almost no interchange of ideas, very little, of even personality. There is also a terrible thing about this medium, that hardly anyone listens. They sort of get an impression of someone, and they think they have figured out just what he is like by seeing him on television..”  – Gore Vidal

Does television run America? There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable, and that which is highly illuminating.   -William F Buckley Jr

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