The illusion of expertise - Information is NOT theory

The New Yorker has a wonderful article titled "Why facts don't change mind?", on the cognitive theory behind confirmation bias. This section caught my attention.

In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. 
Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear). 
Sloman and Fernbach (researchers who conducted this experiment) see this effect, which they call the "illusion of explanatory depth", just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.
The article continues the reasoning behind the illusory depth but I think there's also a different explanation.

People conflate information with theory. While information comes through the virtue of being in the situation, theory is an explanation of the underlying mechanisms of the system.

Familiarity gives people a false sense of expertise. Consider the following two examples.

Some people think that they know about India more than a foreigner because they actually live in India. Usually, foreign researchers are derided for their lack of familiarity with Indian context. However, in some cases, it's actually the case that foreigners know more about India than those who live here.

Bureaucrats are another example. Just because they are working in the government, they have an illusion that they "understand stuff", which isn't true in many cases.

In both these cases, people conflate information with a theoretical understanding of the cause-effect mechanisms and big picture. 

People may be living in India but it doesn't mean that they have a thorough understanding of the mechanisms and big picture. A foreign researcher who has spent time on understanding this, knows better. But, the ego rooted in the virtue of living in India doesn't help people realise that.

Same is the case with bureaucrats. By the virtue of working in the system, they have experience, which is essentially "information". Possessing such information gives them a false sense of expertise, which they needn't have. On the other hand, researchers or those who see the big picture, process the information and uncover the underlying mechanisms. Only, they can claim to have "understood stuff". 

In other words, bureaucrats often conflate information (about the system) with theory (of underlying mechanisms). Even if they have some understanding, often it's fragmented and half-baked, because most don't make an effort to systematically process the information. Only a few of them and researchers do that job and thus have greater understanding of the system and its mechanisms.

But like everything other person residing in India who claims to have expertise on India by the virtue of living in India, bureaucrats also claim expertise by the virtue of being in system. At the risk of repetition, both conflate information with theory.

If one observes closely, this is also reflected in the way bureaucrats' discourse on policy. The analysis of bureaucrats is on the lines of 'xyz scheme' has come, 'abc' were problems (most administrative related) etc. It's not the true analysis and understanding of the system. True understanding requires systematic thinking to differentiate proximate and root causes. Often, this isn't the case with bureaucrats. Probably, it's also the reason for their approach of coming up with another scheme in response to failure of the earlier, without realizing that the problem may not lie in the particular schemes but somewhere else.

Same can be extended to teachers, doctors and others as well. A usual teacher in a government system has information, gained through experience but may not have a theoretical understanding of root causes. One can extend this in several other dimensions but hope these examples illustrate the point.

Most people deride theory but the above discussion illustrates its importance. Theory essentially imposes some order on the information. It thus helps us join the dots and understand the system better.

PS: Strictly speaking, the term information has a different connotation. Insights obtained by processing data is called information. Without going into those nitty gritties, I suppose one appreciates the context of its usage here. The term information here is used more in the sense of familiarity.


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