Sunday, September 2, 2012

Perils of expertise

Isaac Asimov was a celebrated science fiction writer.  His IQ was 160, according to a test whose average score is 100.  Once a mechanic demonstrated to Asimov how a dumb person would ask for nails from a hardware shop.  Then the mechanic asked Asimov to demonstrate how a blind person would ask for a pair of scissors.  Asimov made the gestures of cutting with a pair of scissors.  The mechanic laughed and said, “The blind man would ask for it; who told you he’s dumb?”  [Courtesy: B S Warrier’s note in today’s Malayala Manorama]
It seems that the mechanic went on to tell Asimov that he was sure that the latter would fail in this test.  “Why?” asked Asimov surprised.  “You are too learned,” said the mechanic, “so you aren’t likely to be smart.”
The trouble with the learned people is that their knowledge tends to act like the horse’s blinkers: they tend to think in a particular pattern.  The parable above may not be the best example for that.  This parable shows how our thinking is influenced by what precedes immediately.  However, the knowledge we have accumulated in the past does influence our thinking very much.  The problem with experts in particular fields is that their expertise may act as a straitjacket that narrows their thinking considerably.
One of the many delightful parables of Anthony de Mello tells the story of a man who bought a new hunting dog.  He took the dog out on a trial hunt.  He shot a bird which fell into a lake.  The dog walked over the water, picked the bird up and brought it to the master.
Flabbergasted, the man shot another bird.  Once again, while he rubbed his eyes in disbelief, the dog walked over the water and retrieved the bird. 
He brought his neighbour (a scholar?) and demonstrated the feat that his dog was performing.  The neighbour was not surprised.  “Did you notice anything strange about that dog?” asked the man.
The neighbour rubbed his chin pensively.  “Yes,” he said, “I did notice it.  The son of a gun can’t swim!”


  1. Replies
    1. Life is exactly that, I think: profound and funny. Thanks.

  2. Matheikal,

    All these jokes about the supposedly cerebral folks tripping on apparently harmless question is sort of a parlour games of one upmanship. I have heard similar stories about ewton too. One should not take them too seriously.

    However, you seem to have taken it quite that way: "The trouble with the learned people is that their knowledge tends to act like the horse’s blinkers: they tend to think in a particular pattern." No, learned people are not beyond making silly mistakes. They never claimed so. But that only shows how they great they really are when they find and develop truly profound ideas. The difference is that the "not-so-learned" people do not compensate for their times of stupidity, but the learned do. Society benefits.

    "The trouble with the learned people is that their knowledge tends to act like the horse’s blinkers: they tend to think in a particular pattern." Unfortunately, that is the way one has to proceed while groping in the dark. This is what heuristic methodology is all about. Take a model, a grammar, and see whether the current instance can be accommodated within it. If yes, take it to the next level. If not locate another grammar.


    1. Raghuram, you are free to see these jokes/anecdotes as anything. They would mean quite a lot of different things for different people and that's precisely their worth. Unlike scientific facts which prove one (and only one, in most cases) thing, these ancedotes make people think in different ways according to their attitudes and inclinations. As another reader commented, I find them both funny and amusing. I find them throwing much light on human nature. I personally know quite a few experts who are doubly blinkered.

  3. Sir, each time I read your post, I mostly am convinced but this conviction lasts till the time I read RE sir's comment. And then I again jump to your court with your reply to his comment. This tells me a very important thing about myself - intellectually I dont have a stand(what a discovery? :)). Its quite fun to see both of you put arguments and counterarguments. :)
    I think your posts seem incomplete without his review posted on it.

    1. Sid, isn't it good to have a reader like Raghuram? He makes me think more too. We keep learning all through life. That certainly doesn't mean we don't have a stand. It simply means our knowledge keeps expanding!

      By the way I came to your comment quite late. Unfortunately I haven't found a way to highlight the latest comments or even to get a notification of recent comments in my mailbox.


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