What Are You Reading? (3)

Posted by bob on December 8, 2020

Recently I finished reading a book by Tom Nichols titled The Death of Expertise. I discovered this book thanks to a blog post by Jack Ganssle:  http://www.ganssle.com/blog/blog/humility.html

Here is an Amazon link to the ebook version, but many other formats are available: (no affiliate code): https://www.amazon.com/Death-Expertise-Campaign-Established-Knowledge-ebook-dp-B01MYCDVHH/dp/B01MYCDVHH. I read the Kindle version.

This is not a light-hearted, feel-good read. It is downright frightening. You need to read this book with an open mind and spend some time looking in the mirror. We are all susceptible to believing our opinions are just as valuable as those from experts.

The process of learning facts and background knowledge, and even challenging assumptions are important to successful problem-solving. Arbitrarily dismissing the advice of experts is not helpful to solving hard problems. If you want to make extraordinary claims that are counter to expert advice, you will need to provide extraordinary proof.

One point that Nichols makes is that experts do make mistakes and can be wrong. But generally, experts are consistently correct about their subject area more often. Experts definitely get it right more often than non-experts.

I would like to think that as highly trained engineers, you and I are less likely to dismiss expert advice. But I would probably be horrified at how small that “less likely” value turns out to be.

(Without belaboring the point, you should also have enough wisdom to occasionally question expert advice, and you should understand how to find and test the assumptions underpinning that advice.)

Nichols dives deeply into the subject of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our human tendency to believe data, statements, or opinions that support ideas that we already were inclined to believe. Like my discussion of Fear, confirmation bias can be viewed as a survival mechanism. It takes a lot of training and effort to avoid falling into the trap of confirmation bias.

Books such as The Death of Expertise challenge us to become better, smarter, and maybe a little more careful. Those are admirable goals. I believe those goals are very much in line with viewing engineering as applied science.

Yes, You are a Genius, but please read that entire linked post to understand my meaning.