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Friday, July 24, 2020

Stupid Smart: Missing the obvious when analyzing.

In most societies a good education is considered a key to success and prosperity.   Those who are deemed well-educated and intelligent are likely to have their opinions given more weight.  In our society, we generally respect those who come across as well educated and scholarly.  We tend to defer to those who have advanced degrees, especially if we don't.   Imagine you are told your new neighbor is "Dr. Robert Smith" who worked as a researcher scientist at a prominent university.  You would probably be inclined to think your new neighbor was someone whose take carried a lot of weight.   Now say you are told your new neighbor is "Bob Smith" who is an employee of a local school (without giving anymore detail).  You'd probably would give less weight to his take vs.  that of "Dr. Robert Smith".

Switching gears for a moment, we hear new studies coming out every day about how some food or product is good for our health (or not good for our health).  Years later, we hear studies which call into those conclusions into question.   As parents, some of us learned math in the 'old fashioned', 'straight-forward' way and we seem to do alright.   However, we see our children being taught math the "Singapore" way and it seems completely unintuitive.   Also, we read stories about the how science has confirmed what we already know: men are different than women.  In other words, the so-called experts seem be prone to questionable conclusions, methods and being out-of-touch.

So, how do we square these competing thought:  well-educated = an expert to be given great deference VS. out-of-touch intellectuals?   From what I see:
  • Generally speaking a good education opens more doors for those who come across as learned, but it doesn't guarantee wisdom.  Being better 'smarter' and better spoken doesn't imply that one's thought are more accurate.  However,  they might be present their point of view.
  • A person with a title indicative of an advanced degree, such as Dr., will tend to be cited more if their degree can be somehow leveraged to the subject matter at hand.
  • If the person's 'area of expertise' is highly subjective vs. discretely definable, there is more room for dubious opinions and overanalyzing the issue.
  • Sometimes there is a financial incentive to create a crisis or need where there isn't one.  That is a a financial need to justify a person's position.
  • Sometimes there is an ego need to justify a person or group's raison d’ĂȘtre (reason for being).

Some examples or ideas to wit:
  • Meteorologists are paid well to make predictions that are often wrong, especially the further out their predictions go.   If people are more intrigued by a more dramatic forecast, then he or she might hype THE POSSIBILITY of a major storm or weather phenomenon.   Someone who has worked the land for most of their life might see the same data or the same indicators and note that the potential situation, while possible, is highly unlikely.  The 'weatherman' might have an incentive to hype a possibility both for ratings and to show off his or her knowledge.  The farmer on the other hand is seeking as accurate a read of the situation as possible.
  • A psychologist may run across a child who is new to a school, is quiet by nature, has been late to school and spends an excessive amount of time gaming.  The professional may pursue the notion that the child dreads his or her new school and is trying to avoid it.  A quick discussion with the child's brother may reveal that the youngster simply really likes the new game and there is no more to the issue.
  • A physician with a complex understanding of the body, may run across a child who isn't good at advocating for his or herself and struggles with esteem issues.   After listening to the child and running a few tests and coming up empty, the physician might dismiss the child's concerns as being more psychological--especially if it is an uncommon problem for the child's age.  Only later when the symptoms evidence themselves more prominently will the physician catch the health issue.
    • This actually happened to me when was 17 and the ER physician missed a diagnosis of pericarditis and dismissed it muscle soreness and seeking attention.   The physician wasn't expecting a child my age to have heart issues.   Also, he couldn't find any obvious causes for my chest pain.  Therefore, he read too much into my teenage insecurity and decided there was no real there there and that I might be seeking attention.
  • In a competitive grant environment, researchers, in various fields may feel pressure to come up with a unique or different thesis or take on a subject to stand out from the crowd.  In other words, try to 'prove' a take at odds with conventional wisdom.   This isn't necessarily a bad thing to do.   History is full of people who challenged the status quo leading to discoveries, inventions and a better understanding.   However, if the goal of 'proving' that their thesis takes precedent over finding the truth, there may be a problem.  Sometimes, no matter what angle you look at a subject matter from, the obvious or conventional answer is the most valid answer.

I called this post "stupid smart" because sometimes people who are highly educated or credentialed look past the obvious for answers and may be seeking a deeper or more thought-provoking meaning.   In other words, they 'outthink' themselves.   Sometimes a shovel is just a shovel and not some specialized digging tool, no matter how much you might need for it to be.

I guess you'd say this is my STUPID SMART take on society.  Thanks for humoring it.

- Rich

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