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Back to the Darkness

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In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. - Bertrand Russell

I haven't been blogging much lately, and it all has to do with flying. Fifteen years ago a 22-year-old kid at the airport told me something that's been resonating with me ever since.

In my mid 30s, I had decided to learn to fly. So I went to the airport, where I met a young flight instructor. He seemed like a nice enough fellow. He asked me about my desire to fly. Immediately I went through a list of things I'd like to do -- first I'd like to learn how to navigate, and then I'd like to try out landing on grass strip, and then....

"Hold on a second there, hoss," he said, "Right now you don't even know what you don't know."

As I learned to fly, first as a private pilot, then getting my instrument, commercial, tailwheel, high-performance, and complex ratings (including trying out twins, seaplanes, and stunt planes, among other things) I thought a lot about what he said: I didn't even know what I didn't know.

He was right.

His point was that while I was very aware of what I'd like to do in terms an outsider would understand, I had no domain experience at all in aviation, aside from watching a few movies and being a passenger. It's not just that I didn't know the questions, I wouldn't understand the questions, wouldn't understand what they meant, what the answers might mean, or how the questions fit together. There was no basis for us to have an intelligent conversation.

So we spent a lot of time doing things not on my list: flying slow, approaching a stall, reading METARs, talking about maps, talking about priorities in an emergency (aviate, navigate, communicate), talking about all sorts of domain concepts, talking and learning. We created a common model understood overtly, tacitly, and functionally from which we could start to have a conversation.

You see, I thought I knew what I wanted, and I was right in a way, but in a more important way I was worse than ignorant -- an ignorant person can be taught, he simply needs to be exposed to information -- I was a stranger in a strange land. I was just some guy with a boatload of terms and stories that all kind of fit together in my world-view but had little credence in his -- even though the terms were the same. First I had to learn and be able to physically and symbolically manipulate concepts about what I didn't know, aviation, and then we could start talking about what I'd like to know.

The reason I haven't blogged much lately because I am beginning to feel that the vast majority of what we say and do in the world is horribly incomplete. We're all like kindergarteners to somebody else. We don't know what we don't know. This has very mportant consequences

This may have been meant as a political sidestep,
but is there something very profound here as well?

First I'm not talking about the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people are incompetent believe they have great competence beyond their ken, although this is certainly a subset. I am also not talking about Anosognosia, where people believe they can do things, function in some way, that they cannot, and are unable to realize this, although this too is a subset. I'm talking about the space between being an outsider to a world and being ignorant of it's questions and issues. Cavemen are not ignorant of particle physics: it is outside their world so completely that there's no common ground to discuss knowledge. No amount of questions and answers that is going to get a caveman to start working with bosons.

I started programming in the mid 70s. Back then there were 2 or 3 kinds of personal computers. I learned BASIC on a Commodore PET, but it could have just as easily been on an Altair 8800 (some acquaintances had one) The cognitive leap between turning the thing on -- just like a light-switch -- and programming was minuscule. I could have had my sister (yuck!) programming with just a small amount of help. When I started programming, nobody had PCs, nobody wanted PCs, and PCs were simple to own and use. You could know everything about PCs by taking a week and hanging out with the right bunch of nerds.

Over the next 30 years, I became a computer consultant, a generalist, specializing in not being a specialist. I lived in a rural area and the way I started my business was to meet people with computer problems, walk into their workplace, and fix the problem. Whatever that problem might be. I did hardware, software, the first Mac network in town, manufacturing, printing, you name it. I have tried to have a general overall knowledge of computers and a general overall knowledge of business. My professional goal for the next few decades was to stay on top of a field of study that started out very simple, and got immensely more complex. I've had the unique opportunity of being in the passenger's seat while an entire new world-wide industry took off and changed things forever. Very cool.

Of course, in the last ten years or so it's gotten too much: there are too many major variations on personal computer software and major variations on deployed hardware platform. Over this time I kept seeing the same pattern. Let's take,databases. Initially there were very basic DOS databases (Dbase anyone?) Pretty soon multiple players come into the market, the level of expertise rises dramatically, things get super complex, and suddenly you get people who are expert in one software aspect of one database platform. Repeat and rinse.

Today if you asked me if I knew how to program a database, I'd explain that I can and have worked in many different platforms: Oracle, SQL Server, Sybase, Access, flat-files, etc, but my work has consisted of designing and deploying project-based work. There's a whole other world of database programming involving shards, clustered indexed, column-based datastores, replication, etc that I think I know enough about to have a conversation, but not immediately use. These are the known unknowns for me.

I believe I am seeing the end of when a technologist can walk into a company and start having a reasonable conversation about any of the random hardware/software combinations that might be running there. We're still at the point where sharp people can learn quickly, so consulting is not dead! But the days of having a vast functional cross-cutting domain knowledge are coming to a close. Consultants, even the sharpest ones, that work with random clients are moving into unknown unknown territory.

I'll never forget when I joined Microsoft Developer Network. The first month I got all these discs in the mail. Woo hoo! I had a copy of everything Microsoft made! I could take my time and learn product X, or take a look at system Y.

Then the next month came, and there were more discs. Then the next, and the next. Discs started to pile up around the house. I bought boxes for them. Products had multiple releases and patches. Microsoft set up tests for each category, then each product, and finally each product version. Pretty soon I had hundreds of DVDs but the hits just kept coming. Microsoft had forty-thousand people in Redmond making new Microsoft products, making the existing Microsoft products more complex, and all I had was one guy at the other end of the disc mother lode -- me -- at first trying to master but later just to stay on top of the language of the technology. I have a closet full of MSDN discs.

Used to be Microsoft was the big game in town, but now Microsoft is just one player in a large ecosystem of technology creation. I never stood a chance.

Over the years I am coming to believe this same thing is happening in most all of modern life, to all of us, only it's happening at a slow enough rate and we give it such little attention that we are unaware of it.

Recently I had a friend recommend a good book, "The Science of Fear". In it, the author goes over his reasons why we are afraid of things we shouldn't be, and how external agents use that to their advantage. Next I read "Predictably Irrational" in which that author went over how people made economic decisions based on many other things besides a mathematical understanding of value, and how that changes economics. Finally I am reading "Against the Gods:The Remarkable Story of Risk" in which THAT author goes over how people have learned to deal with very complex systems of risk, using logic and math to make intricate and detailed plans and decisions about things. About how we don't reason in superstitious ways like we used to.

Now each of these books is good, and each has a point. But each is missing something from the others: context. The fear guy has simple theme -- people have a primal brain and a logical brain -- and he takes that to the conclusion that we are all manipulated by [insert evil actor here]. Seems like he is missing the fact that it is not just fear, it's perception, it's understanding, it's expected impact -- but you can use the word "fear" to cover a lot of ground, and that's what he does. He has a semantic hammer, and everything in the world is a nail. The others have similar flaws. You get one piece, you miss others. You tell a great story, but big pieces of it are incomplete.

Each of these books was written by people who had important things to say and were somewhat experts in their field, yet each author drifts subtly from an area of strength to one of weakness while continuing to expound as an expert. The psychologist begins talking about economics, or the economics professor begins discussing history. Most people will never spot the holes -- unless the book has some great political impact, there's simply not the attention given to the overly-broad statements, misstatements of fact, or important omissions. It's not false. There is no deception going on. In fact, mostly kinda sorta it's all true. The models are incomplete or lacking in subtle yet perhaps important ways. It's "truthy"

I remember after I learned to fly I took some "practical aerobatics" classes from one of the better flight instructors in the nation. The guy was amazing. You could ask him any question "What would happen if we turned the plane upside down, killed the engine, and got into an inverted spin while in IMC?" and he would sit down, walk you through the issues, then take you up in the plane to practice it.

One day a very unusual plane flew into the airport. As the pilot (one of his friends) came into the FBO, he asked "Jim, how long do you think I would last if I tried to fly that without any training?"

Jim chuckled, "You might make take-off, but you'd never land it"

There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots. Aviation is all about having a damn good grasp on the knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.

While we all may find it easy to believe that most other people are stupid (to use Russell's term), it's much harder to accept that we all suffer equally from this. Intelligent and educated people, in fact, more than others. Let's take a look at science, because that's where the gap between what we'd like to be and what we are is the most painful.

Initially a person could be a fair master of everything scientific: people up until the 17th or 18th centuries could learn enough to make a passable attempt at basically whatever field they wanted to play around in. Science was like a field of dirt with a few plants placed every so often. If you knew something about one plant, you could work with most any of them. Scientists were supermen.

In the late 19th century, though, and definitely as the 20h century progressed, the plants grew roots, multiplied, and started forming in unique ways. In addition, all the plants wrapped around each other both above and below ground -- visibly and invisibly. it was no longer clear what was connected to what or by pulling on one thing what other things would be affected. Folks reassured themselves by saying that their little plant was where all the action was, and that we could trust the experts on the other little plants when we needed help, but nobody really understood all the interconnections. It either wasn't important, or it was impossible, so why worry about it?

As I learn more and more, I realize more and more what I don't know. I also begin to see what others do not know -- and believe you me, we do not know a lot of stuff. 99% of internet commentary, including mine, is missing key pieces of information that would make a huge difference. It's enough to make you give up writing altogether. I had some inkling of this, but I don't think it really sunk in until recently.

Sadly, education level does not help. To take a recent example, economist Daniel Klein surveyed about five thousand adults to ask them a few simple questions about economics that had clear wrong or right answers. Now economics isn't the most sexy science in the world (sorry Dan) but having a basic knowledge of it would be important, say, for talking about starting a business, or immigration, or minimum wage, or any of a thousand other topics that tangentially involve economics. Surprisingly he found no correlation between education level and understanding of basic economic theory. But there are a lot of professors, scientists, pundits, and otherwise highly educated people who are more than willing to blog, write, comment, and pontificate where this basic rudimentary knowledge is required. Dan's discovery is like finding out that most PhDs are unable to add or subtract. It should be a scandal, except that it isn't. Nobody knows what they don't know.

it's all becoming like computer science was in the last decade. To have a discussion about just about anything in life makes us a generalists in some sense, and just like me and those Microsoft discs, we don't stand a chance either. The details and new sciences are piling up faster than we can not only grasp, but faster than we can roughly manage a working domain knowledge.

So we have climatologists making statistical errors, physicists making historical errors, biologists failing to understand political science, English majors failing to understand logic. It's not that these people are defective or somehow missed out on some needed piece of education; it's that, at certain times that they are totally unaware, the depth of all the required peripheral fields to their work have increased beyond their ability to function. Somewhere Rumsfeld has to be laughing.

Some scientists, unaware of what they don't know, or uncaring, have decided to become activists. Or historians. Or TV commentators. Or political pundits. Or authors. Or politicians. The great general public still attaches a certain face with "expertise" -- the old lizard brain is not about to go around saving some matrix of skills with each face -- so our brains basically only have two modes: trust him and don't trust him. Lizard brain meeting the cognitively blind pundit is not a good match-up.

Not only do we (the public) do this, much more importantly highly educated people do it to each other. In fact, highly educated people are much more likely to trust another highly educated person than a mentally-challenged person would.

So a scientist in one field, say agriculture, can write a book on better farming and begin talking about meteorology and cross the line between solid science and guesswork without having any idea he's done so. Meanwhile we, and other scientists, take him on the same authority in one area as the other. Then he reaches conclusions that seem imminently rational and germane to modern life: conclusions that are little more than educated speculation -- although neither he nor we know this. The plants are all connected to each other in non-intuitive ways. Not good.

It gets worse when we add activism to the mix. An activist scientist, like all others, can easily rely on nearby sciences that he thinks he knows enough about to reach conclusions. After all, while he might not be an expert, these are sciences in his general field, so he feels qualified to work with them in the same manner as his own science. Maybe he is correct in this assumption, maybe he is not. To an outsider we can never be sure. We know the dentist who starts giving us stock picks may be speaking outside his expertise area, but the expert on frogs telling us about dinosaurs? Not as sure. Are dinosaurs still considered reptiles? What we can say from historical observation is that the distance between sciences where you step out of your depth keeps getting smaller and smaller. 150 years ago your dentist could also be your doctor and veterinarian. Does the frog expert know enough to give advice about iguanas? Who knows?

Like the rest of us, the activist scientist doesn't know what he doesn't know either. but he knows what we should be doing. He has made an emotional commitment to a course of action based on provisional facts strewn together with speculation covering areas that the speculator has no expert knowledge of, but he doesn't know and we don't either. Nobody knows what we don't know.

Science, logic, and reason will carry on no matter what, of course, but once the guy who is the expert in the arcane starts worrying about messages and planning how to wield political power, a line is crossed. In an important way this takes us back to where we started five thousand years ago. There's some big thing we can never understand, actions must be taken to make things right. The magic man will tell us what to do and whether or not we have done enough. He is sure he knows. He can show us other tricks that assure us of his power.

The rest of us are sure of our ignorance. He is not. He cannot petition for political change unless he is sure that he has mastered the subject to such a degree as to know what to do. It means there can be no Anosognosia, no major doubts, no Dunning-Kruger, no unknown unknowns.

In my opinion, an activist scientist is not a scientist at all.

Maybe you are thinking global warming, but I have no particular topic in mind here, you can substitute economics or whatever else you like and still reach the same conclusion.

We're back to the witch doctors preaching to the cocksure.

There is hope, all is not lost, when there's an actual product or reproducible result and not just an opinion or theory the universe has a tendency to cut through the bullshit, but that's a topic for another day.

EDIT: But what do I know? I've finally written an article where if you tell me I don't know what I'm talking about, you're agreeing with me!

I know there will be criticism that while there are common errors amongst regular folk, when it comes to science none of them are important enough to note. Leaving aside the discussion of popular scientific literature versus scientific papers, I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine how one would know whether an error was important or not without knowing what it was, how it connects with other topics, and what impact it has on people working in other areas. This is not a matter of criticizing certain occupations, authors, or political positions. These examples are mostly random. I am simply observing the side-effects of humans with minds that evolved for the savanna interacting with the incredibly rich, deep, and interconnected system of knowledge that we've created.


An excellent post! People do need to realize sometimes that being smart in one field doesn't make them smart in all.

Any time you find yourself in a conversation at a cocktailparty in which you do not feel uncomfortable that thehostess might come around and say, "Why are you fellowstalking shop?" or that your wife will come around and say,"Why are you flirting again?"—then you can be sure youare talking about something about which nobody knowsanything. -- Richard Feynman

"But I didn't. I only knew that you'd know that I knew. Did you know that?"

This definitely isn't a good blog entry to have a couple beers before you read it :)

I was worried about all the knowing and not knowing, but I figured you guys would work it out, you know?

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on June 22, 2010 12:01 PM.

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