If you’ve ever considered yourself an expert (or at least, better than average) at an activity, you’ve likely felt this. It’s the feeling of hearing someone talk about the activity you know so well, and knowing that they have little idea of what they are talking about compared to yourself. When this happens, I immediately start thinking about how much better I would be at in explaining a concept.
This is an elitist attitude, plain and simple. I don’t regard it as a good thing, but I feel like this quite often.
For example, I am a runner that runs quite often (about 110km per week), and so I almost immediately begin shaking my head when someone gives “expert” advice when they themselves only run twenty kilometres a week. When this happens, I become incredulous, wondering how they can respond with such suggestions when they barely run to begin with.
However, a more distressing example involves school. As a student in the pure science program, I’ve received this constant expectation that science students were smarter than those in other programs. As a result, I’ve caught myself adopting elitist attitudes when listening to someone else (who does not have a background in science) discuss science as if they are an expert. Why are they talking about science when they barely understand it? is a question I would ask myself.
I’m not proud of this default habit, and so I’ve been working on keeping more of an open mind. Instead of trying to outright dismiss what others are saying, I partake in a much more challenging endeavour: how is this person reaching those conclusions from their experience?
I can agree that the science is sometimes a little dubious, but that is the nature of spreading information. I go into science because I want to learn more. Therefore, it’s expected that I know what I am talking about. However, we should not expect the opposite to be true. Doing so causes us to form a strong bias for previous experience in science, taking away from those without a rigorous scientific background and may still have something to share.
Let’s not adopt an elitist attitude merely because educational institutions silo programs instead of integrating them.
I’ve written about this before, but I’ve gone through most of my school years labeled as “the smart one”. Since it’s a mostly positive label, I haven’t take particular issue with it. At the same time, I also accepted the term of “athlete”. These two terms have been the ones that surround me as I made my way through school, and they still do. Whether or not I like them, they’re the ones that have been ascribed to me.
However, I know I am much more than just an athlete and a “smart person”. I write, I read, I have an interest in everything to do with science, but I also am interested in design and technology. I have many different interests that are all but invisible to the majority of people who meet me.
It’s not that I don’t want them to know these things about me. Instead, the reality is that people can’t keep all these things about me in order in their minds.
Think about it: give me a number that represents an estimation of the people you know. Now tell me, how many details can you remember about a person, on average? Chances are, only a few. This is because we are very good at attaching a few labels to a person, and then calling it a day. From then on, we aren’t likely to change that label, nor are we to push further than that label if we don’t interact with this person frequently.
This tells us that we define people quickly and we make broad oversimplifications. The easier a person can be classified in one’s mind, the better it will be if one wants to recall that information. Therefore, we reinforce this mental model of others in our minds because it makes us feel more secure about knowing our friends and acquaintances.
It’s not necessarily fair, and it sure will lead to others defining you in ways that you won’t agree with, but that is how our minds work. We like to categorize in order to reduce complexity. As such, you have two choices: fight every definition others have of you (which requires a lot of energy), or accept the definitions others have of you and move on 1.
Others will define you, but you get to choose how you react to such definitions. If you want to be seen in a certain light, create that impression for people. Essentially, force them to define you as the person you want to be. It will never be a complete definition, but it will be one you agree with more.
1. [To be clear, I’m not referring to people being prejudiced towards you. I’m talking more about what you are known for, which is usually something to do with your profession.]↩
Are You Sure?
I’ve always been interested in a particular teaching technique that I think of as the “deception”. I’m sure you’ve experienced this sort of technique before, where it goes something like this:
The teacher asks, “How does this concept work?” The student responds with the correct answer, but they aren’t fully certain. Then, instead of agreeing and telling the student their answer is correct, they ask, “Are you sure?”
Suddenly, the student doesn’t seem as confident of their answer.
I’ve seen this happen on multiple occasions, and teachers seem to do this for different reasons. Some like to simply bug students, while others want to see how confident the students are in their answers. The goal, of course, is to get students to be sure of their answers without the need of a teacher’s approval.
I’ve always wondered how effective this strategy is. On the one hand, it’s a bit misleading to a student, who tends to rely on the nods of a teacher to know if they are going in the right direction. On the other hand, this technique prevents students from relying on the teacher as a crutch for a correct answer, since the teacher won’t be there to help for an exam.
My feeling on the subject is that it’s a good tool to use, but shouldn’t necessarily be used all the time. I worry that it could get to the point where the students don’t trust the teacher for straight answers, which isn’t a good thing. If used well though, it can be a good strategy to challenge students to trust their own reasoning.
Like many things, this technique should probably be used in moderation, and simply to see if a student is understanding the concept correctly.
Often, we fear changing our minds on ideas because we don’t want to seem like we aren’t solid in our opinions and beliefs. It’s as if we think people will dislike us because we don’t stick with our beliefs when they are challenged. In popular culture, there’s no better example than politicians in debates, who will never sway from their beliefs1.
But it’s not just in the mainstream media. Scientists do this, too. One only has to look at the complicated geocentric model of the solar system from Ptolemy to see how we aren’t tempted to ever leave our beliefs. Or by looking at the Pythagoreans, who only considered whole numbers (or ratios of whole numbers) as “proper” in mathematics, effectively shutting out rational numbers from ever seeing the limelight.
But this is exactly the opposite of what should happen.
Follow this line of thinking: Imagine you’re beginning to learn a new subject at school. At first, you have absolutely no clue about anything in the subject. As the class begins, you begin to form mental models about the concepts that are discussed to you. You extrapolate from what the teacher is saying to make assumptions about other applications of the idea.
The next class comes, and the teacher talks about the concept you had been thinking about earlier. However, you are surprised to learn that your idea of the concept wasn’t quite correct. Instead, there were other factors that you hadn’t taken into account, which renders your mental model incorrect.
Once the class finishes, do you go up to the teacher and say that they have it all wrong? Or do you take what the teacher just taught and incorporate it into your model, fixing what was wrong?
If you want to learn, you’re definitely picking the latter. It’s the rational option, since you’ve learned something new. As such, it makes sense that you’d change your mental model.
After all, the former option isn’t smart. You’re trying to defend assumptions you’ve made versus actual proof from a teacher2. Therefore, you’re setting yourself up for ignorance, versus actually learning a new idea.
The big problem is that trying to maintain one idea with an unwavering belief is a recipe for stagnation. Case in point: Back in 2007 when Apple unveiled the iPhone, BlackBerry wasn’t particularly concerned, infamously saying, “These are computer guys. They’re not just going to walk in here and solve the phone riddle.” (Link). We all know that the iPhone flourished, while BlackBerry steadily lost marketshare, in large part because they did not want to change their beliefs. As a result, they stagnated.
These are just a few examples, but plenty can be found in so many domains throughout history. Unwillingness to change their beliefs resulted in bad things for those people. By not keeping an open mind, they halted any potential for growth.
So now that we know what happens to these people, why in the world does this continue to occur? Surely people would see the evidence and try to change for the better?
I can’t resist, so here’s my three-word answer: global climate change.
The best reason that I can find why people don’t like changing they’re ideas is because they become attached to them. Particularly in the scientific community, original ideas are the currency. If you have an original research idea, you have a potential ticket to continued funding. As a result, people can get emotionally attached to an idea, not wanting to let it go even when most evidence points against it. While this is prevalent in science/academia, it also appears in every other domain. People like their own ideas, and so aren’t particularly happy about changing them.
Therefore, we have to be open to new ideas and perspectives if we want to be lifelong learners and grow in our areas of interest. Clinging to our ideas is only a mechanism that tries to protect our pride and make us look “resolute”. Instead, we should worry about being blind to new and brilliant ideas because we are entrenched in our old world views. If we do this, we can create the habit of absorbing information, and then analyzing.
What this means is keeping an open mind to everything. By all means, call an idea “terrible” if it is so. However, you should give every idea the benefit of the doubt until you’ve understood it. Or, at the very least, try to keep yourself versed in other perspectives, so you can always be testing your ideas and perspectives against the others. That’s the key, in the end. We should be concerned with finding the best ideas at the time, and working with those, no matter who they come from.
As people that are interested in learning and becoming the best in our domains, we should not fear change. We should fear staying rooted in old and outdated ideas, simply because we’ve become emotionally attached to them.
In the end, being fickle and willing to change your mind isn’t a bad thing. It’s the sign of a smart person on a path for lifelong growth.
Personally, I don’t see how we can continue calling these events “debates”. In my eyes, a debate means a place in which one party should present arguments that are so strong that they sway their opponent. However, this obviously never happens. ↩
I’m not saying that teachers are always right and students’ assumptions are always wrong. However, when a proof is given that is rock solid and contradicts your mental model, that is when it is better to listen to the teacher. While making mental models is a good exercise, they tend to not be the most accurate, and so are often changed. ↩