Why experts are morons: a recipe for academic success

This morning there was quite a bit of tweeting, back and forth, about this article and exactly how stupid it is.

“If our attention span constricts to the point where we can only take information in 140-character sentences, then that doesn’t bode too well for our future,” said Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University.

Yup, you read that right. Some guy with a Ph.D. who works at one of the best universities in the world (and who’s sufficiently good at his job that they made him director of a clinic) is talking — to all appearances quite seriously — about the idea that the human attention span might shrink to the length of a tweet.

In other news, if the world were made of custard, global warming might lead to major dessertification, if we could just just bake an apple crumble big enough.

Maybe there’s a good explanation. Maybe Dr Aboujaoude’s remarks were taken out of context by the San Francisco Chronicle. Or maybe they threw him this ad absurdum scenario and he ran with it because he’s a nice guy and thinks that even if reporters pose a dumb question, it would still be rude to call them on it.

Here’s my ill-conceived, half-baked thesis for the day: experts are morons.

Why? Well, we get very excited over stuff we think is new, because we’ve been too busy down in our own little silos. I pissed Harvey off earlier by posting, in good faith, a link to Tyler Cowen’s TED talk about the dangerous appeal of stories.

Kids, don’t even try to sell Harvey old rope. Even if you didn’t know it was old rope. He’ll know.

What I ended up saying to Harvey was essentially Look, there’s a movement afoot to try to to get storytelling back into learning, to replace the content firehosing that passes for big education these days, McDonalds-style — and this talk serves as a useful reminder that stories are invariably a gross oversimplification of the evidence.

What I should have been saying was: Dude, I spent umpteen years becoming a subject matter expert, and at no point did anyone tell me that I needed to apply my critical faculties to delivering the material I researched so painstakingly. I’m new at this; cut me some slack!

(It turns out that Harvey and I were somewhat at cross-purposes; such are the limitations of 140-character ‘discussion’.)

Here’s the thing: academic success favours those who focus their critical faculties on developing their subject area expertise.

Below is a recipe for modest success in academic life and for becoming a legitimate ‘expert’. (Quantities and ingredients may vary according to your needs and experience.)

  • You need to be bright-ish. Not supernova bright, just bright enough. (If you’re too bright in school, you’ll get bored; see next point.)
  • You need to be well-behaved. (If you don’t behave, you’ll be labelled disruptive and that will do exactly what you think it will to your chances of academic success. Yes, even if you are bored because lessons are too easy.)
  • It helps to crave everyone’s approval. (If you don’t care what your teachers or parents think, why would you try hard on subjects that don’t really interest you?)
  • Questioning authority probably isn’t in your nature. (Or if it is, it’s a very specific kind of critical thinking, like “hey, maybe nukes aren’t that great an idea, mmkay?”) This will serve you well later, in your tenured career.
  • You are comfortable letting other people set goals for you (“You think I should go to university? Great!”)
  • You acquire a certain nerd-like pleasure (flow, if you like) from gnawing on very specific questions.
  • Your school years have conditioned you to understand that most people are mean, and best avoided.
  • Metaphorically or actually, you have let a thousand cups of tea go cold while you geek out on your chosen subject.
  • … okay, that much will get you through university and into a postgraduate programme (Masters or Ph.D.) At this point, it will be particular helpful if you can screen out information about the world around you, because this will just distract and confuse you about the relevance of what you are doing. (Having a crisis of meaning is one of the fundamental stages of doing a Ph.D.)

    If you survive this process and get your doctorate, you enter the world of teaching, admin, research, publication, and grant-getting — listed in increasing order of importance to your new employer. Your Ph.D., the entry requirement to academia that you have worked so hard on, also serves as your passport to teaching. Pause a moment to reflect on the weirdness of that statement: subject expertise is used as a measure of how competent you are to communicate that information meaningfully to non-experts.

    (Some universities, mine included, are trying to address this systemic shortcoming by getting new lecturers to do a teaching certificate. This is a lot better than nothing, but it’s also quite possible to do the absolute minimum required to pass, then go on your merry way, unmoved and largely unchanged. At least we do ‘peer observation’, which is a nice way of seeing what other people are up to; it’s hard not to reflect on your own teaching when watching someone else deliver a session.)

    Once you’re on the big shiny merry-go-round of teaching-admin-research-publication-grant-getting, it’s even harder to drag your ass out of the mire of just trying to keep up with your subject area and across the road into the big field of flowers that is good educational practice. And when you do manage to haul yourself over there (at the cost, by the way, of time spent on research/publication/grant application — and no-one is going to reward you for that choice), you get disproportionately excited when people show you some of the shiny things that exist in the world, because you’ve been far, far too busy becoming a subject expert to notice them. This can make educators look like big, dumb puppies — for example when we’re over-keen to co-opt neuroscience.

    The other side-effect of being an ‘expert’ is that if you’re not naturally inclined to cause trouble, question the system, or think critically about more than subject-matter problems (and remember, you have floated to the top of an educational system that rewards exactly those qualities), then sometimes you end up saying really dumb stuff, because you’re too busy thinking “ooh, that would be interesting” — like what if we really could only take in 140 characters’ worth of stuff before our attention drifted — to fully consider the validity of the question.

    None of this is an excuse for living up to the ‘woolly professor’ stereotype, but I hope it helps to explain to people like Harvey why experts sometimes sound like they’re rediscovering — or even reinventing — the wheel. And as for us ‘experts’ (and boy, am I uncomfortable with that label) we need to try harder to think about the practical applications of what we do — and to remember, once in a while, to apply those finely-honed critical thinking skills to something other than our own subject areas. We’re not really morons, but to the casual observer, it’s an easy mistake to make.


    Obligatory afterword: there are a number of stellar educators who really do manage to apply their critical faculties to more than just their own subject area, and who manage to get through university and postgraduate qualifications despite asking really awkward questions and rocking the boat. If they ever isolate a gene for that, we should all go get spliced right away.


    Filed under my stuff, other people's stuff

    16 responses to “Why experts are morons: a recipe for academic success

    1. usablelearning

      What exactly was Harvey’s objection to the TED talk? (tried checking, but was foiled by protected tweets)

      • finiteattentionspan

        Mostly that none of it was really news — which it isn’t, if you work in an area that prizes narrative, but to people from other areas who are all excited about the shiny learning concept that is ‘storytelling’, it probably is.

        As someone (I think it might have been Martin Shovel?) said recently, it’s unreasonable to expect non-experts to stay abreast of, or be competent to ‘referee’, subject areas outside their immediate expertise. But I guess maybe we need to work a bit harder …

        There was some other stuff too, but that’s H’s to tell, not mine. I’m hoping he’ll step in here if I’m way off, though :)

    2. I read a book a while back, cannot think of the title right now for anything, about expert opinion. The author gave several reasons experts may have worse accuracy than someone off the street when predicting the future. Here are a few I remember.

      If you’re an expert, you’re expected to have an opinion on many different topics and you’re expected to formulate opinions quickly.

      The more you know, the more facts you have at your disposal to confirm your prejudices.

      You get invited for interviews by making provocative statements, not by saying that common sense will prevail. So you have an incentive to be contrarian even when you shouldn’t be.

      • finiteattentionspan

        Oh dear, that does all sound highly plausible.

        Although I really hope never to go the ‘chasing interviews by being provocative’ route.

        (and thanks for the book suggestion: Expert Political Judgement, in case people were wondering.)

      • In the book “The Black Swan” Nassim Nicholas Taleb devotes a large part railing against experts, especially in academic and business areas where expert opinion has been no better than the man (or woman) on the street.

        • finiteattentionspan

          Hi Brian,

          I haven’t read that, but I’ve caught a few links to other news/comment pieces recently arguing that experts’ “expertise” is highly overrated. Finance takes a hammering, as does wine-tasting ;) There seems to be a human requirement to create and then revere experts; maybe we need to get over ourselves.

          Thanks for stopping by, and for the book mention.


    3. usablelearning

      There was an interesting post about the accuracy of experts just this morning:


      I’ve also had a number of experiences with Smart People who have an unwarranted sense of confidence in their opinions about areas outside of their domain (it seems to correlate to the degree with which they have been praised for their intelligence knowledge in their domain).

      But I also think it’s related to your previous post about neuroscience shiny-shiny. As a non-neuroscientist, I have a couple of choices. Option A – I can try my best to understand and apply what I learn about the field and inevitably get it wrong. Or Option B: I can wait until it’s cannonized by someone more qualified before I apply it.

      I usually go with Option A (which I try to liberally sprinkle with humility and disclaimers). It’s meant that I’ve said/done some cringe-inducing stuff over the years, but I still think it’s better than Option B.

      While I don’t think the issues you are describing are at all specific to academics, I can see how the academic system encourages the phenomena.

      Also made me think of the Pinker/Gladwell piece from the nytime this weekend — did you see that one?

      • finiteattentionspan

        Ooh, thanks for those — I’d seen the first, but not the second.

        You’re quite right: non-experts are in a bind over this stuff. I guess it’s incumbent on experts to watch their mouths, but that isn’t always straightforward.

        I’m going to read the Pinker/Gladwell piece on my way to work, thanks!

    4. traveller1

      ‘“If our attention span constricts to the point where we can only take information in 140-character sentences, then that doesn’t bode too well for our future,”

      Yup, you read that right. Some guy with a Ph.D. who works at one of the best universities in the world (and who’s sufficiently good at his job that they made him director of a clinic) is talking — to all appearances quite seriously — about the idea that the human attention span might shrink to the length of a tweet.’

      – Just from the quote alone it sounds like he’s only answering a question about a particular scenario.: “If A then B”. It doesn’t sound like he’s serious about the possibility that the scenario might happen. But then I read the article you referred to and it does seem like he’s serious.

      I’m just saying that I was perplexed at the opening to this article.

      • finiteattentionspan

        Hi, thanks for stopping by.

        I think he probably got thrown this scenario by the SF Chronicle, but I think he made a mistake in giving it any kind of airtime. Sure, it’s a theoretical scenario (about which sort of thing scientists love to speculate), but how likely is it? Pretty damn unlikely, I’d guess. But maybe the Chronicle doesn’t care; they got their headline.

        I think scientists and educators need to think harder before dignifying this kind of question with an answer.



    5. FrustratedGradStudent

      This post hits the nail right on the head, for me. I have been in a hard-science, research-based graduate program for 2 years now. Every time I learn something new I find myself more frustrated with the way this world works. In fact, I believe many people here are frustrated with me:

      *I am not well-behaved
      *I do not crave these people’s approval
      *I continuously question authority
      *I believe most people are good people

      Now, some of these qualities do indeed make a good scientist, but the fact is that _no one_ will like or even know how to instruct a student like this.

      I began reading your site to learn how I would be able to present scientific information *better*. But these rutted scientists wants what they expect, even if there is something that is better for them. I will be able to obtain a master’s degree from this torrid experience. However, my frustration with this system stands, and I will not be able to look back at my experience fondly.

      Great site, good thoughts. Always something to take away and ponder. Keep it up!


      • finiteattentionspan

        Hi Matt,

        Sorry for the late reply; I’ve been away.

        I’m sorry to hear that you’re having a hard time in grad school. I think that nice, quiet students probably have an easier time, but I am absolutely not saying that you should lie down and be good, because that’s basically the equivalent of suppressing your academic integrity and natural curiosity. Most of my favourite thinkers have come to blows with the education system at some point (usually sooner rather than later); I’d say, try to ride it out and enjoy the grad student experience and anything it affords you that ‘real life’ doesn’t: student discounts/promotions, a nice safe haven away from ‘the real world’, the opportunity to Just Learn All Day Long (which, believe me, you miss when it’s gone). And I really hope things improve for you and that you meet sympathetic instructors who get that you are not just making trouble for the sake of it. (They do exist!). I wish you luck!

        By the way, thank you for your very nice comments on the site :) I’ll try to keep doing it, whatever ‘it’ is …


    6. In the world of techcomm, I frequently come across people who hold a converse yet equally weird position to the one that you mention: lack of high-level subject expertise is seen as an automatic disqualification from being able to communicate any information about the subject meaningfully to non-experts. In other words “you can’t write the user guide because you’re not an engineer”.

      • Wow. That stands in complete contrast to a conversation I had with a tech comms guy the other day about a way of writing manuals — the company ships product and the tech comms guys take it apart and put it together again without any help, and write the user documentation based on their experiences, not the biased and curse-of-knowledge-bound “expertise” of the engineers who made it. I was so impressed when I heard about that …

    7. Pingback: Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions « Finite Attention Span

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