Here are some of the operating procedures I use to help ensure I don’t wallow in ignorance.

Don’t Argue about Zebra’s

One of the first rules I like to operate by is that I don’t argue about Zebra’s.

In Canada walking around my town if I see a 4 legged beast running through a field with mane flowing it’s almost always a horse. There is almost no chance I’m going to see a zebra running through a random field, unless I’m at the zoo.

When talking about issues, I don’t entertain arguments that include statistically improbably odds. Unfortunately for most people that’s most of their argument. They heard about 1 kid somewhere in the world that had something bad happen. They want to ignore the millions of children that were totally fine. They simply want to focus on that single statistical outlier and create rules to protect everyone.

Yet, they’re happy driving a 2000lbs death machine. Seriously driving is far more dangerous to you and everyone around you than your pet zebra argument.

Don’t talk to me about zebra’s.

The Otherside Isn’t Dumb

Americans no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid”. To disagree is to disrespect. To correct is to insult. and to refuse to acknowledge all views as worthy of consideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be closed-minded. 1

No one wants to be called stupid. We all want to think that we’re smart and reasonable. We want to believe that our ideas are arrived at in a reasonable fashion and are correct.

But that may not be true.

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It’s very easy to fall into false-consensus bias and believe that everyone is like us and believes the same things we do. We get surprised when we meet people that don’t agree with us because we obviously hold the correct opinion and we want to believe that we’re rational and smart.

But, we fall into confirmation bias and disconfirmation bias the same as everyone else. We give more authority to ideas that we agree with and less authority to ideas we don’t agree with. We feel that we know a topic far more deeply than we do.

There are a few ways to combat falling into this trap. First, when you’re thinking about a hard complex topic try to explain it in a way a middle school kid could understand. This helps us avoid thinking we understand something because when we can’t explain it coherently we realize that our knowledge doesn’t go as deep as we thought. When we come to that realization it’s far easier to listen to others as they explain their views on the same subject2.

Another way I combat this is that when I start researching a complex topic I start by looking at the side I wouldn’t naturally agree with. Most recently I started looking more at my beliefs about the LGBTQ+ community. I grew up in a strict Christian household and was always told that being gay was a terrible thing. While my parents never said this, at times in my church life it seemed that it would be better to beat my wife than to be gay.

When I started to analyze my beliefs instead of simply carrying what I was taught I asked my local bookstore owner for a bunch of books that were pro-LGBTQ+ because I know she is a very vocal business owner for the community. I’ve read 4 or 5 of them over the last year now and my opinion has changed immensely. I can no longer live with the thought that the LGBTQ+ is “in sin”.

A final way to stop thinking that the other side of an argument is dumb is to analyze when you share content online. Are you sharing it to show how educated you are on a topic? Are you only sharing items that confirm your already held beliefs? Is this just an attempt to show your intellectual superiority over some other group?

Instead, share stuff that makes you question your currently held beliefs. That’s far more worthy of the time of others.

Now, I’m not saying at any point in this that you give racist/misogynistic/homophobic people space to espouse their beliefs. There are many topics where the answer is nuanced and we’d benefit from discussion and respect. We can talk about the exact path to navigate climate change, but denying it’s happening is putting your head in the sand and not engaging in intellectual debate.

The Internet Helps Us Think We’re Right

If we’re committed to investigating the well-reasoned opinions of people that don’t share our viewpoint there are a number of pitfalls then we need to be careful of the internet. The internet is a list of inexhaustible “facts” that may be true in isolation but aren’t true in the world we live in. These facts let us mimic expertise and squash anyone that would disagree with us under the weight of all the things we “know”3.

Remember that the internet is an inexpensive vessel for others to share what they think. It does nothing to vet the quality of thought or the expertise of others. When we have easy access to this information it makes it harder for us to defer to a true expert in the field.

One sad part about researching stuff on the internet is that merely searching and skimming headlines makes us believe that we understand something better4. We still likely don’t have the knowledge to decide which headlines may be true and we certainly never read the articles and checked the credentials of those that wrote them. We likely never even checked to see if the headline matches what the article was about, it often doesn’t.

Yet, simply searching makes us feel like we gained understanding.

I see this all the time at work building sites. A customer comes to me with an idea and knows how it should be executed because they read a few programming blogs. I usually end the conversation line by asking them if they came to me to talk to an expert or if they just wanted someone to execute on their new knowledge? If it’s the expert, I build them what they need. If they want someone to do what they’re told they find someone else to work with.

When searching for stuff inside my field of expertise, I can get by with headlines and skimming. I have over a decade of building WordPress sites to fall back on as I judge the worth of something. When researching something outside my field of expertise I need to check credentials and find the original sources to understand what’s really going on.

One great example is the idea that we’re more productive with multiple monitors. I ended up tracking down studies that people cited showing this and I’m not convinced. The task people were asked to perform was so narrow that I do believe it was better with multiple monitors. But people don’t just have 2 spreadsheets open to copy data back and forth. They have email, chat, social media, and some news sites open. Confronted with all the distractions that can be available on your screen are you really more productive with more screen real estate or are you multi-tasking more and getting less done?

I haven’t seen replicable research that draws this distinction so I remain skeptical about multiple monitors and productivity.

Ask the Question

There is an awkward point in many parts of life where you’ve known someone long enough that you have some type of shared history and yet you still can’t remember their name. It feels bad to ask what their name is because you should know it, and it’s even worse if they know and use your name.

There is a parallel situation in many organizations in Life. We deal with many customers at work and it seems like so many of the other people I work with just know the abbreviations we use for partners. Yet, I have no idea what many of them are, and even by looking at the letter SS I’m not prompted to think of the specific partner they refer to.

In truth, there is almost always someone else that feels they can’t ask the exact same question you’re wondering about. They’ve been there longer, or feel they have more to risk by now appearing to know something. For women and minorities, they are in fact risking someone viewing them as bad at their job when they ask this question.

This is why I’ve decided that I’ll ask the question. I’ll ask what the client abbreviation is. I’ll ask how long the 800m line is at the gym because it’s not a track and it’s simply a faded tape line. I’ll risk feeling inferior because it’s likely that someone else has the same question and doesn’t feel like they can ask it.
most no one has

Expertise in One Area Doesn’t Mean Expertise Anywhere Else

If you were to list my areas of expertise I’d say I’m a decent PHP programmer that knows WordPress to a very deep level. I’m a well-equipped trail runner that has worked his way out of many issues that others would have needed to call Search & Rescue for. I’ve rescued others when they were not prepared for the terrain. I’ve been a cyclist since 1994 and can handle a bike better than many.

But that’s where my expertise ends. I’m not an expert in cognitive biases. I may just know enough to do damage to you as you read this. I try hard to be aware of when I’m an expert, and when I’m merely guessing and have little knowledge to fall back on.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something that recognized in society. Some movie star weighs in on politics and people soak up the opinion as if they’re truly a political expert5. In fact, the biggest mistake that most experts make is to assume their expertise in one field translates to expertise in any other field at all. An actor that’s read some books and talked to some people about a topic is no more an expert on political theory than anyone else is that did the same amount of work.

Their only expertise is to be an actor. An influencer is maybe someone you should listen to about personal branding, but in almost any other area they have no idea what they’re talking about. Worse yet, when you’re popular and espouse a view in a public manner it makes it much harder to change your mind6, because the internet has a long memory and we never want to be called wrong.

The world would be a much better place if we ignored most of what famous people had to say outside of their specific field of experience. We would all be better off if we’re free to acknowledge that at one point in our lives we had bad ideas that we no longer believe.

I know I used to hold ideas that I now abhor.

Reading Recommendations

If you want to dig deeper then I have three book recommendations for you.

  1. The Death of Expertise Page 25 
  2. The Data Detective Page 272, 273 
  3. The Death of Expertise Page 106 
  4. The Death of Expertise Page 119 
  5. The Death of Expertise Page 178 
  6. The Data Detective Page 260