Armchair Experts: A Gigabyte Wide and a Kilobyte Deep

I have friends who have PhD’s. I am married to an MD. I am surrounded by people who have been in school for nearly every year of their lives. And I feel so bad for them. In fact, I feel bad for all the poor fools who devote decades of their lives to delving into the depths of knowledge in any one discipline, when all they ever had to do was spend an hour Googling their specific area of interest. All the time and effort expended. All the pride at a job well done. All the meaning behind an official title. All of it, obsolete with the advent of “copy, paste, repeat”.

Obviously, I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? HuffPost says I can use both in this case.

My point is that we’ve devolved into a very frenetic, paradoxical type of people, folks who will outright dismiss a bit of info if it comes from “them”, yet repost/retweet/resnap without a moment’s thought if it comes from “us”. We have a very small knowledge base, and a very huge ego. We’re skeptical and blindly trusting. We have convictions of concrete, but they lack rebar. We’re armchair experts, without the expertise.

I feel worst for the educated and learned because, in today’s world, no matter their level of education in their chosen topic, anyone smart enough to sign up for WordPress can come along, type right up to their face, and say, “Nuh-uh.” Having seen the level of perseverance and intake my wife has had to put in just to become a first year medical resident, it boggles my mind—and is downright offensive—when someone will actually say, “Eh, what do the ‘doctors’ know?” I always want to reply
something like, “Well, 35,770 more hours than you or I do!” (The product of 14-hour days times 7 years provided by Google Calculator)

I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I believe everyone has the responsibility to admit when their opinion is ignorant, based on hearsay, merely reactionary, or all of the above.

One of my closest friends, Mike Phillips, is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. He’s the one I turn to if I’m wondering about the quality of a piece of literature. For the purposes of writing this article, I asked him what his thesis was. His response was:

I researched the ways in which 1800th century British novels address a reader as well as mark moments of fictional omission in the narrative. Both instances establish a fictional entity, a reader, as well as establish a fictional series of events, the narrative, that become both substantial and incomplete and unknowable.”

I don’t understand that sentence. I had to have him repeat it repeatedly in order just to write it down. As much as it pains me to have to defer to someone besides myself, common sense would dictate that I continue to approach him for the formation of my literary opinions. Why? Because he knows what he’s talking about, at least, more than I do. Of course, he regularly turns to me with questions regarding pomade or break-in tools.

We need humility so badly. Only humility can enable us to resist the temptation to conjure up a comment section soapbox and spew. We need humility to admit what’s true and what isn’t. We need humility in order to stop beginning our sentences with, “Well, I’ve always thought…”

To clarify, it’s not just about having a degree; it’s about what the degree signifies, the years and sacrifice. You don’t need a degree to have a wealth of knowledge. However, you do have to input a far greater amount of information than, say, a google search, in order to obtain a degree. It’s why so few people have degrees, for Pete’s sake! It requires a supreme amount of effort and will, whereas Google requires nothing. Google is the internet’s version of an honorary degree. Sure, it makes us feel like rebels to stand up to the establishment, like stickin’ it to the man, but we’ve got to make sure “the man” is wrong first, right? Otherwise, we’re like a car dealership’s inflatable, wobbly-guy, waving endlessly, but filled with air.

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Basically, unless you’ve devoted years upon years to studying a specific topic, then you have to have the humility to at least question whether or not you should be talking about an issue. Any issue. Any belief.

It’s not easy, though. Believe me, I know, firsthand, how difficult it is to stop talking about something specifically because I’m uninformed in that area. You don’t see me spouting off about quantum physics, vaccines, or male modeling anymore, do you? No, because it turns out that I am not qualified to express anything more than a personal opinion about those topics.

Looking something up on Google doesn’t make you even an ounce closer to knowing what you’re talking about. There, I said it.

To think that we can get a firm grasp on any situation from a 140-character tweet is ludicrous.

What comes across your Facebook feed probably has as much in common with the truth as I do with Brad Pitt. Sure, people often confuse me for him when I’m out in public, but even a minute on his wikipedia page will tell you that we’re two very different people, leading very different lives.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: you’re ignorant.

Trust me; you’re ignorant.

11 thoughts on “Armchair Experts: A Gigabyte Wide and a Kilobyte Deep”

  1. Avatar

    The engineers who built the Harbor Tunnel in Boston all had mega degrees
    but it partially collapsed killing innocent people and sprouted a whole bunch
    of leaks. The super engineers who designed the space shuttle were warned
    that rubber O rings and ice in 28 degree temps were a bad combo for liftoff
    but other PhD’s eschewed their knowledge and poof, a national tragedy. Bill
    Gates dropped out of college and yet he makes more dough than thousands
    of degreed individuals making big bucs. The debate between PhD’s on one
    side of the global warming issue cancel out a whole lot of degrees on the other
    side as only one group can be much more right than the other. The well learned
    men (Augustine and Aquinas ) whose superior knowledge of God and Church
    that still holds sway didn’t stop them from assuming that baby’s who die without
    Baptism will not see God or in the case of the latter, think God wanted an arm
    of the church to torture and condemn simple minded peasants. You can have
    all the documented well earned expertise money can buy but common sense,
    intuition and simple folk medicine sometimes trump them all – with a little help
    from Wikipedia.

    1. Avatar

      James, I’m willing to bet that the failures that you cite, in Boston and at NASA, which you attribute to engineers, are in fact much more the result of administrators and MBAs who, ignoring the advice of their technical experts, cut costs or redirected efforts away from the technical activities that their engineers advised, to other, more “profitable” activities.

      I remember, after the Challenger disaster, reading an article by one of the NASA engineers who repeatedly told NASA administrators that launching the shuttle under the cold conditions that day was not advisable, and that the design of the o-ring was not suitable for the conditions. He was overruled by administrators.

      And the engineers at NASA, almost to a man and woman, were and are “super engineers.” It was the administrators and MBAs that failed us.

      1. Avatar

        You are correct, Tom. One caveat however is that for all the engineering
        skills on hand not one knew or would say that if you do this it will blow up.
        Why ? They didn’t know. Had they,they’d have rioted at mission control.
        The apostles were simple folk without degrees and their intuition, intellect
        and reason made them exceptional humans able to know what the learned
        did not. .

      2. Avatar

        As an engineer myself, I often cannot state exactly what will happen if “x” is done, but I know to some degree of certainty when the design or capabilities of a system are stretched or exceeded and caution is called for, as in, my knowledge tells me that launching the shuttle today under these conditions is not advised. Engineers cannot always say what will happen if “x” is done, but they know that “x” has a higher probability of exceeding system capabilities and leading to system failure.

      3. Avatar

        Of course. However, if we extrapolate the kind of science
        that will one day be taught, that would KNOW those kind of
        conditions WOULD lead to system failure your engineering degree would be primeval in comparison. As Einstein well
        knew – everything is relative. Thanks for the discussion.

      4. Avatar

        My understanding is that a Mechanical engineer tried to prevent the Challenger explosion.
        http://whistleblowing.us/2012/02/remembering-roger-m-boisjoly-challenger-disaster-whistleblower-1938-2012/

        I’m an engineer in electric power. Experience has taught me:
        1. If you want to know what’s really going on, go talk to the men and women actually doing the work.
        2. Accidents and failures are almost always caused by someone pushing cost and/or schedule.
        3. Engineers want to over build; Accountants under build.
        4. Experts are right 99% of the time, and that 1% can be a real pain.
        5. There are very very few engineers that don’t want to do the right thing. We are a profession that polices morality in its own practice.
        6. When the sh-t flies, it sticks to the engineer.

    2. Avatar

      I guess I’m more getting at that I’m pretty darn sure that nobody working at NASA got there by googling and opinionating from home. I’m sure they’ve either gained the formal schooling and training necessary in an educational setting, or have put the years upon years of time into understanding it.

      Citing mistakes alone overlooks the vast mountain of achievement that brought us to where we are. Maybe you and I don’t roll in the same circles, but I’m mostly frustrated by the wild, uninformed, and speculative nature of social media and the like. I was just trying to edge people a little closer to being quiet and less firm in viewpoints that are, perhaps, less informed.

      I’m planning a follow-up article on the difference between knowledge and wisdom, though, too. That plays in.

      1. Avatar

        ” I was just trying to edge people a little closer to being quiet and less firm in viewpoints that are, perhaps, less informed.”

        I get you nic and have all the respect in the world for anyone who attains a
        degree.

  2. Avatar

    and the people with the degrees are also ignorant of much in the world. probably they are more ignorant of much in the world because they have chosen to spend their time focusing on a very small aspect of the world.
    those who spend most of their time focusing on a very small aspect of the world are denied the understanding of interconnections among truths, theories and concepts that are equally as real as those to whom the individual has chosen to give his time and talents.
    I in no way mean to say that specializing is bad, but it does have drawbacks. I am reminded of a story I heard about Einstein. according to the story, he could not change a car tire.
    there is no real way to determine whether it is better to be a jack of all trades and a master of none or to be a master of one and ignorant of the rest.
    we cannot due without the experts, but the interconnectedness of the worlds truths, theories and concepts re equally important.
    are there dangers in specialization? I believe there are. for example, look at the relationship between the medical doctors and the chiropractic doctors. so, often the expert medical doctors are clueless about the science behind and the benefits of chiropractic. as a result, medical doctors do disservice to their patients by not referring them to a chiropractor when that would be best for the patient. this kind of error is not intentional but it is related to the ignorance the medical doctors have about an area outside of their expertise.

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