Making Use of the Armchair: The Rise of the Non-Expert

As with all news, when I heard about the Sochi skating controversy last week, I read multiple sources on it and let it simmer. From the comments, however, that I saw on Facebook, Reddit, and on the news websites themselves, one thing struck me—nearly everyone seemed to be have extensive knowledge of Olympic figure skating, from the names of the spins to the exact scoring rubric.

How could this be? Was I the only person who had no idea who Yuna Kim was, or that Russia had not won in the category before?

Much of this “everyone is an expert” phenomenon is explained by selection bias, in that those with more knowledge of skating were more likely to comment in the first place; therefore, most of the comments that we see are from those who are the most knowledgeable.

But it’s unlikely that there would be hundreds of figure skating experts all commenting on at once. Moreover, when you look at the commenting history of the people in the discussion, they seem to also be experts on every other subject, not just in figure skating. So another effect is in play.

Namely, the Wikipedia effect (courtesy of xkcd):

xkcd Extended Mind

Of course, this effect is not limited to skating in the Olympics. When Newtown occurred, masses of people were able to rattle off stats on gun deaths and recount the global history of gun violence in late 20th- and early 21st-century.

Even so, not everyone does their research. There are still the “where iz ukrane????” comments, but undoubtedly the average knowledge of Ukrainian politics in the United States has increased drastically in the past few days. If you polled Americans on the capital of Ukraine, many more would be able to answer “Kiev” today than one week prior. For every conceivable subject, the Internet has allowed us all to become non-expert experts.

Non-Expert Knowledge

The consequences of non-expert knowledge range from subject to subject. The main issue is that we all start with an intuition about something, but with experience or training comes a better intuition that can correct naive errors and uncover counterintuitive truths.

  • An armchair doctor might know a few bits of genuine medical practice, but might also throw in superstitious remedies into the mix and possibly harm the patient more than helping. Or they might google the symptoms but come up with the wrong diagnosis and a useless or damaging prescription.
  • Armchair psychologists are more common, and it is easier to make up things that sound legitimate in this field. It is possible that an armchair psychiatrist will help a patient, even if due to empathy and not from psychiatric training.
  • Armchair economist. Might say some insightful things about one trend that they read about in the economy, but could completely miss other trends that any grad student would see.
  • Armchair physicist. Might profess to have discovered a perpetual motion machine, to be dismissed by a real physicist because the machine actually has positive energy input and is hence not perpetual. Or, might read about the latest invisibility cloak and be able to impress friends by talking about the bending of electromagnetic waves around an object by using materials with negative refractive index, but has no idea that it only works for a particular wavelength, thus making it practically useless (for now).
  • Armchair philosopher. Perhaps the most common, the armchair philosopher notices the things that happen in life and takes note of them. The article that you are currently reading is armchair philosophy, as I basically talk about abstract stuff using almost zero cited sources, occasionally referencing real-world events but only to further an abstract discussion.

Going back to the physics example, we normal people might observe the drinking bird working continuously for hours and conclude that it is a perpetual motion machine. An armchair physicist might go further to claim that that if we attach a motor to it, we could generate free energy.

Drinking Bird

A real physicist, however, would eventually figure out the evaporation and temperature differential, and then conclude that it is not a perpetual motion machine.

Five minutes of reading Wikipedia will not allow you to match an expert’s knowledge. But having non-expert knowledge sometimes does help. It opens up the door to new information and ideas. If everyone spoke only about what they were experts in, the world would become boring very quickly.

Talking About Topics Outside of Your Expertise

In everyday speech, any topic is fair game except for, ironically, the one topic that everyone is deemed to be an expert in even without Wikipedia—(their) religion. But I digress. The point is, the way we talk about things on a day-to-day basis is very different from the way experts talk about them in a serious setting.

Some differences are very minor and just a matter of terminology. For instance, I was discussing the statistics of voter turnout in the 2012 election one time, and I had phrased it as “percentage of eligible people who voted.” At the time, I did not know that “turnout” was a technical term that meant precisely what I had just said; I thought it was just a loose term in that didn’t necessarily consider the difference between the electorate and the total population, hence why I phrased it so specifically. In this example, the statistics I presented were correct, and thus the conclusion was valid, but the terminology was off.

Other differences are more significant. In the case of medical practice, a lack of formal understanding could seriously affect someone’s health. Using Wikipedia knowledge from your smartphone to treat an unexpected snake bite in real time is probably better than letting it fester before help arrives. But it’s probably safest to see a doctor afterwards.

A non-expert discussion in a casual setting is fine, as is an expert discussion in a serious setting. But what about a non-expert discussion in a serious setting? Is there anything to be gained? If two non-physicists talk about physics, can any meaning be found?

My answer is yes, but you need to discuss the right things. For example, my training is in math, so it would be pretty futile for me to discuss chemical reactions that occur from the injection of snake venom into the human body. However, given that I had done my research properly, I might be able to talk about the statistics of snake bites with as much authority as a snake expert. Of course, it would depend on the context of my bringing up the statistics. If we were comparing the rise in snake deaths to the rise in automobile deaths, I might be on equal footing. But if we were comparing snake bite deaths between difference species of snakes, a snake expert probably has the intellectual high ground.

But even this example still requires you to use some area of expertise to relate it to the one in question. To the contrary, you can still have a legitimate discussion of something outside your area of expertise even without relating to an area of expertise that you already have. You only need to make a claim broad enough, abstract enough, or convincingly enough to have an effect.

Among all groups of people, writers (and artists in general) have a unique position in being able to say things with intellectual authority as non-experts. Politicians are next, being able to say anything with political power as non-experts. However, I’m interested in the truth and not what politicians say, so let’s get back to writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald was not a formal historian of the 1920s, but The Great Gatsby really captures the decade in a way no history textbook could. George Orwell was not a political scientist, but Nineteen Eighty-Four was very effective at convincing people that totalitarian control is something to protect against.

The Internet and the Non-Expert

On the other hand, Nineteen Eighty-Four was not crafted in a medium limited by 140 characters or by one-paragraph expectancy. If George Orwell were alive today and, instead of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, wrote a two-sentence anti-totalitarian comment on a news story on North Korea, I doubt he would have the same effect.

In fact, it is usually hard to distinguish an expert from a non-expert online. Often, an expert prefaces oneself by explicitly saying, “I am an expert on [this topic],” but even this is to be taken skeptically. I could give a rant on the times people claiming to have a Ph.D in economics have no grasp on even the most basic concepts.

In addition to allowing us the sum total of human knowledge just a click away (well, maybe not all knowledge), the Internet allows us to post knowledge instantaneously and share it with millions of other users. We have not only the public appearance of non-expert knowledge, but also the virus-like proliferation of it. Since the dawn of the Internet, people have been able to acquire knowledge about anything, but there was a great divide between the few content providers and the many consumers. Only recently have we become the content makers ourselves. What is the role of armchair philosophy in the age of information?

Conclusion

Now is a more important time than ever to be an armchair philosopher, or an armchair thinker, precisely because of the overwhelming amount of information available to us. To deal with the data overload requires an abstract way to categorize information, to filter out the useless from the useful, the wrong from the less wrong, the less true from the true.

We are expected to deal with areas outside of our expertise, and as our knowledge of these areas grows from the age of mass information, our responsibility to use it correctly becomes greater. Forming opinions even on issues that you have no authority to form opinions on is now an imperative. We learned the capital of Ukraine in one week, and our googling of Kiev might prove useful in the future. To deal with a quickly changing world, we need to deal with all information, not just data that we are comfortable with, as effectively as possible.

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