Eve Pearlman: Expertise matters
A pleasant feature of working as a reporter is that you very often interview people who are experts. An entomologist, say, who has spent a lifetime learning about moths and butterflies. An MD whose entire professional career has been spent studying how babies and toddlers acquire language. Or a veteran administrator who has spent decades immersed in the intricacies of education law.
Over time, I have learned to appreciate — even savor — the abilities of experts. It can be thrilling when they quickly clarify my understanding or make illuminating and inclusive points — often correcting or refining ideas that I held when I began the interview. Often experts have introduced elements of an issue that I had not even imagined.
Like most of us, I can do research, Google up some articles, make some observations, form some opinions. But I have learned that there is a lot to be said for the accumulation of knowledge and depth of understanding that occurs over time. And while I am not one who easily surrenders authority, I have frequently been dazzled by the experts and expertise that I have encountered.
Paradoxically, I have found that it is very often people who know the most – for example, a professional at the peak of his or her career – who are most willing to acknowledge the limits of their expertise, to be open about what they don’t know, or what they can’t explain, or what is simply uncertain or unknowable.
A study once caught my eye. Researchers found that the highest achieving students tend to assess their performances the most harshly: ‘B’ students tend to assess their work as ‘A’ level, while top performing students tend to be the most self-critical, downgrading their own performances. Curiously, those who knew less and had inferior skills thought the better of themselves — while the opposite was true for the high achievers.
As a reporter, I tend to take it as a big red flag when a person overvalues their performance or when they are 100 percent certain they are right. “This law is perfect!” or “This development plan is the best thing ever!” or “My way is the best and only way to run a school!”
Because in reality we know that nothing is perfect, that every solution or plan or theory is partial — especially things of human making, like laws, which are most always products of human foible and compromise.
The ability to know what one does not know, to understand that one might not be expert and to admit doubt or complexity is indeed an important skill, one often left by the wayside in political debate in Alameda.
In political discussions on our Island, I notice that there are many absolute pronouncements from self-declared experts in everything from city finances to the laws that govern public school administration. How can bystanders and critics be so sure that they could run a school district better than those who have spent their life acquiring expertise? Are you sure, fellow citizens, that you know how to develop an age-appropriate curriculum? Moreover, is SunCal really ‘evil’? Sometimes it feels as though everyone is an expert on everything, and that humility and open-mindedness were left somewhere in a crumpled paper bag tossed on the sidewalk to be hauled off to the landfill.
A cocky confidence does nothing to advance understanding. Along with civic participation comes responsibility, and in Alameda we could do with a little more recognition of the limits of our own expertise, our own knowledge. So perhaps when you, my fellow Alamedans, find yourself believing that you’re 100 percent, without-a-doubt certain, you should reconsider. And take a moment to reflect that there may be more learning to do, more information to acquire, assimilate and understand.