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Standing Up to the “Experts”

September 17, 2008

Here is reason number 72 why I love my wife. She was forced to take another Math course on the journey to securing her advanced nursing degree. She likes math courses about as much as being licked on the mouth by a dog, so she had a certain amount of momentary depression. But as she usually does, she sucked it up and bit into the curriculum with gusto.

On one exam (taken online), she noticed that two of the questions had at least two possible answers, depending on how you interpreted the question. In both cases, she interpreted the question differently than the examiner anticipated, which means she got the “wrong” answers. Even with that, she got a high grade on the test (no big surprise if you know her), but she couldn’t leave it alone. For over a week, she went back and forth challenging the Professor to look at the test from her point of view. I knew it was a hopeless cause. Even if she was right, he was never going to admit it.

Then, out of the blue, she announced at breakfast that her Math prof had given her credit for both answers. He had also allowed anyone else in the class who had worked out the problems as my wife did to apply for credit as well. He publicly thanked her on the class website for challenging him.

Doesn’t that beat all?

Just two weeks before, we had watched again the brilliant movie “Lorenzo’s Oil”. It is the story of Augusto and Michaela Odone, whose son contracts a rare neurological disease called ALD. No one can cure it or control its progression. Neither of the parents knows much about medicine, but they are relentless to help their son. They read everything they can on the subject. They convene meetings of various “experts” in their field, all of whom have something to say about the disease, but none of whom have enough of the answer to bring about a cure. Finally, after gathering all the data they can, they approach a British Chemist working for Choda International who makes an oil that stops the disease cold in its tracks. Even though it cannot reverse the damage done to their son, it eventually is used to help future sufferers from ALD. The father is given a doctorate for all his work.

In the movie, those who ridicule the Odones the most are the experts. None of them can see what needs to be done like the parents. All of them contain part of the answer, but none can solve it.

The day after Kathy’s Math victory, I was reading a chapter in Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan”. In that book, he talks about the problem of “the empty suit”. He calls it that because most of our world’s experts are “arrogance mixed with incompetence”. To Taleb, nothing is more dangerous than that combination. Because Taleb believes, as do I, that all knowledge is incomplete, no matter how much we study a field, we come to the conclusion that no one can truly be an expert. For someone to be an expert, he must have a reasonable grasp on all that can be known about a subject. Let’s say, for sake of argument, that an “expert” must know at least 50% of all that can be known about a subject. To any skeptic, the problem is obvious. We don’t know how much we don’t know. God was not exaggerating when He said “Your ways are not my ways; and your thoughts are not my thoughts”. Taleb is not bothered that all of us lack an unknown quantity of knowledge. What bothers him are those who arrogantly claim to be experts. To Taleb, it is the arrogance that stops them from admitting there is much more they need to learn.

The doctors of “Lorenzo’s Oil” are insulted that the Odones tried to instruct them about ALD. Since they considered themselves to be the ultimate authority on the disease, it was an outrage that someone would suggest they didn’t know their own field of expertise. But the reality was, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. They did know some things, but they were ignorant about their ignorance.

We are all ignorant about our ignorance. But it is arrogance that won’t allow us to admit it; and this is what slows down the progress of knowledge and wisdom.

When Kathy challenged that Math prof, I was convinced she would run into the Empty Suit. He certainly understood mathematics well enough to teach the course. But he didn’t realize that in writing a test, he needed other skills, such as language aptitude and coherent reasoning skills.  Just calling yourself an expert in Math does not mean you know how to put a test together.

Twenty-six years ago, I was preaching on a subject dear to my heart – I don’t remember what it was, but I felt confident at the time it was dear to my heart – when I happened to use an example of something my son did that week. He was three years old at the time and was apt to say outrageous and cute things. All of that is fodder for sermonizing. After the message, the mayor of that small town, a member of the church, took me aside. “Mike, you need to be careful. If you share too many of your family’s secrets in public, they may grow up resenting you. I think you need to stop.”

My “empty suit” bulged with indignance. I had studied Hermeneutics (the study of dissecting truth); I had mastered stagecraft; I had been recognized as a good homiletician (speechifier). I wasn’t about to listen to this country bumpkin (no matter what his civic title), lecture me on the one thing I was an expert at. That night I told my wife what he had said to me. Without looking up from her meal, she said “He’s right. You need to stop doing that.”

I have stopped doing that. My ‘expertise’ was the thing getting in the way of seeing new truth. Many times I have had to take off my empty suit when the situation called for it and admit I didn’t know anywhere near as much as I hoped I knew. Others may not be as willing to do that. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t approach them and bring either correction or helpful information. If you do take on the experts, remember these following rules.

1. Put away your own personal offense. If they can’t see what you’re saying, thank them anyway for being willing to listen. Keep digging into truth and allow them to see it in their own time. Don’t be offended by their lack of vision.

2. Don’t attack. Be gracious and present your arguments or information in a way that can be easily grasped or handled. Sometimes experts can’t see something because of how it is presented.

3. Ask for clarifications if they don’t agree with you. Don’t fall into the same traps as the experts. You may be absolutely sure you now know the truth, but that arrogant attitude is the same mistake. Perhaps it is the collaboration of what they know with what you know that will hold the key to knowledge.

4. Don’t claim to be an expert from this point on in your life. There are no such things. It would be helpful to realize that now. Or, at least that’s my opinion.

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11 comments

  1. great truths

    my wife never backs down


  2. Now either that means your wife is one of your heroes because she stands up to “experts” Vince, or you think she is one of the “experts” who won’t back down. I prefer the former. But you can leave it ambiguous if you want to.


  3. I haven’t


  4. Some might suggest that the emergent church is a “black swan.”


  5. Taleb uses the term “Black Swan” to refer to any event or entity that is totally unpredictable, thereby throwing off all the predictions that didn’t take anything like it into account. Some might indeed suggest that the Emergent Church is a Black Swan. But there are many who anticipated the Emergent Church and helped it to come into being. Only to those who live in what Taleb calls “Mediocristan” is the Emergent Church a complete Black Swan.


  6. What a fantastic post and great testament to your wife. It just makes me like her even more than I already did from how you’ve described her. Really, I suppose, anyone who would be married to you would have to have that sort of tenacity, now, wouldn’t she? *ducking*

    Seriously, though, this makes so much sense. Certainly, I know much, much less now than I ever “knew” in my 20s.


  7. Being married to me, she has to have: tenacity, thick skin, sharp wit, rolling eyes, ability to find things, ability to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny, desire to read first drafts of awful writing, patience with mood swings. You name it Alli and she has to have it.

    Isn’t it a great thing to come to the knowledge of what we don’t know. The scourge of the ‘expert’ is that they can’t share that peace.


  8. Interesting concept isnt it. Not knowing what you
    dont know. Kinda weirds you out to think too hard
    about it


  9. I understand what you’re saying to a degree, but how does a personal example become arrogant? Usually personal examples break down walls and enable people to grow closer. I like when people give personal examples–if anything, it shows a vulnerability. It digs below the surface.


  10. Barb: It is not the personal example that reveals a person’s arrogance…it is the attitude that claims expertise. There is nothing wrong with the knowledge that we have grown in our understanding of something. But as soon as an individual claims to be an expert, or accepts that claim from others, the arrogance blinds them to how much they don’t know.


  11. Ah, okay. I think I’m tired ;).



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