Demystifying Expertise

expertise-equation

Each of us tends to undersell (or completely disbelieve) our expertise on subjects that are near and dear to our hearts. Expertise, we believe, is something other people have.

And yet, I am convinced that we are more expert than we think. And fortunately, we are living in a time where methods to convince others of our expertise has never been easier.

Watch my recent Facebook Live video Demystifying Expertise and see if you agree.

 

NeoHuman podcast, starring me

Willis NeoHuman

My friend Agah Bahari is interested in everything, which is one of the things that I love about him.

Not that long ago, he decided to indulge his interests by starting something he calls the NeoHuman podcast (which matches nicely with his NeoHuman blog), inviting many of the interesting people he knows to discuss pretty much anything that comes up.

Well, seems he ran out of interesting people and so he invited me to participate…and we talked about anything: biotechnology, pharma, global healthcare, designer babies, creativity, writing, screenwriting, 9/11, marketing, and the novel he and I are writing about his life.

But my favourite part is the question he asks all his guest, which is roughly:

If you met an intelligent alien life-form, what would you describe as the greatest human accomplishment and as the worst human accomplishment?

Never boring, my friend Agah.

Agah-me

(Photo stolen with love from Kelly Brienz Showker)

Malnourished with malinformation

KnowledgeI’d argue that any amount of knowledge is a good thing. It is a little bit of information that is likely to trip you up.

As many of you know, I am a science and medicine writer in another life—the more lucrative one, but that’s not saying much—and so I spend many of my days immersed in the worlds of scientific and medical discoveries and blundering. I even spent several years working at a biochemistry bench as a scientist—you may genuflect, now—so I know the world of which I speak.

For this reason, I tend to view science and medicine as a work-in-progress, as so much noise with moments of signal. Rarely do I herald the hype and equally rarely do I despair the bumps.

To my friends who see every announcement as a breakthrough, I am a cynic. And likewise, to everyone who pounces on every setback as evidence of mass conspiracy, I am a complicit shill. Whatever.

The challenge comes when I engage in a discussion of the topic du jour, because more often than not, the person with whom I am talking is adamant that he or she knows the truth. They are empowered by something they have heard or read from a renown expert. They have information.

(Let me state here that I do not believe that I am the holder of all truths. I do feel, however, that I have a good handle on what I do not know, and just as importantly, what is not yet known for certain.)

So, let’s start with some definitions (purely mine) of information types:

Information: A collection of facts about a subject upon which someone can formulate a testable theory or postulate a conjecture.

Misinformation: Incorrect declarations that potentially lead one to false conclusions.

Disinformation: Knowingly false declarations for the purposes of misleading another group (e.g., counter-espionage, propaganda).

information triangle

I suggest, however, that we need another category to address the shade of grey between the positives of information and the negatives of mis- and disinformation.

Following the model of nutrition versus starvation, I propose we call this new category malinformation, with the following definition:

Malinformation: A collection of facts that, while true, is insufficient to formulate a definitive conclusion without the support of further facts.

Just as a malnourished person is not starving, but rather suffers the effects of an insufficient blend and quantity of nutrients to experience balanced health, a malinformed individual is not wrong per se, but rather suffers the effects of an insufficient blend and quantity of facts to experience balanced knowledge and understanding.

For example, people who change their eating habits because they read about a single study that showed a specific food extract reduced tumour size in mice. Or a clinician who has created a behavioural modification program to reduce addiction based on a thought exercise using largely unrelated studies.

Any of these decisions are based on legitimate data from legitimate studies, but often ignore (or simply don’t look for) alternative and/or possibly conflicting data from equally legitimate studies. Rather than analyze all available data before generating a theory, they find the malinformation that supports their beliefs and then stop; a little bit of data being taken to conclusions that simply are not supported.

Boom-bust

Maybe they’re right. But more likely, it is much more complicated.

In conversation, I find the malinformed much more intractable than the ill-informed. With the latter, there is a chance you can correct the misinformation. With the former, however, the mere fact that the malinformation is correct seems to be sufficient cause for them to defend the castle they have built in the sky. When you “yes, but” them, all they tend to hear is the “yes”.

In fairness, all information is technically malinformation as we will never have access to the complete knowledge of the universe. We are always going to be forced to make decisions based on limited knowledge.

But where more knowledge is available, I think there is duty to examine and understand it before becoming intractable in our positions.

If there is a newspaper article about a new scientific discovery, efforts should be made to learn more about the limitations of the science that led to the discovery. How far can you realistically extrapolate from those few data points?

In biomedical research, that which occurs in a mouse is, at best, a clue to what might happen in a human. Nothing more.

It could lead to the next step in scientific inquiry—the actual purpose of science—or to a dead end.

Belief is nice, but unless that belief is well founded on broad and balanced information, it is limiting and might be dangerous.

(Or at least, as far as I know based on my understanding of the available information.)

Dream snatcher

dream web

The other day, I engaged in the following conversation on Twitter:

Him: There are a lot of tweets directed towards aspiring filmmakers telling you to “never quit” and “follow your dreams.” That’s terrible advice.

Him: If you met some guy and he said he wanted to be a professional NBA player would you immediately suggest he follow his dreams and never quit?

Me: If that’s where his happiness is, then yes, I would. Who am I to call down his dreams? Would in fact offer to help.

Him: Attention anyone in the world who is looking for someone to help them become a professional basketball player.

Me: If you never try, how will you ever know what you might accomplish? Why live by someone else’s thoughts on what is feasible?

I understand his point.

So often, people express a desire to become something or someone without a good understanding of what it takes to do that. And in a subset of these situations, the aspiring individual isn’t willing to put in the requisite work to overcome their ignorance or skill-set shortcomings.

I’ve known several people who upon seeing how much joy writing brings me express a desire to write. And then do nothing about it. And unlike the professional NBA player quest described above, writing simply requires a computer or pen & paper. And yet, many of these people refuse to write.

But even knowing this, even if I had complete clairvoyance to a future of procrastination or frustration and agony for them, does this give me the right to tell them they shouldn’t try? I don’t feel that it does.

Despite my conversational counterpart’s sarcastic response (I assume it was sarcasm), I am happy to help anyone become a professional basketball player, if that’s what they want. I have no idea what skills I could possibly bring to that quest, but hell, we all need support to follow our dreams.

chase-catch-dream-big

You don’t have to be an expert in a subject to help someone.

You can help them better understand what they’re attempting so they can make informed decisions. You can offer a couch or spare room if they need a safe haven. You can cook a meal or several for them when money is tight. You can cheer at their successes and offer a shoulder in times of frustration or disappointment.

And most importantly, you can let them know that success or failure—whether internal to them or measured by external yardsticks—has absolutely no impact on whether you will be there for them.

To all of my friends and to people I have yet to meet in life, pursue your dreams with everything you have, make your life choices knowing that I will be there to help you in any way I can.

And do your best to ignore the dream snatchers who think they are doing you a favour by talking you out of your dreams.

go-confidently

And if you’re tired of watching me live my dreams, check out the blog of a friend of mine who has started living her dream life: Pipe’s Adventure.

The most dangerous F word

Fear

Hate is fear rationalized. Hate is fear acted upon.

Hate is the belief that fear is finite; that if I bestow some of my fear on you, I am unburdened.

But that is a lie.

Fear isn’t of this universe. It doesn’t live by the E=mc2 paradigm. Fear has limitless potential for growth.

Any more than I can relieve myself of a pestilence by giving it to you, my fear remains and may even grow when I pass it along.

Surely a little fear is okay, keeps us from stepping off cliffs or traveling dark paths.

Fallacy.

Fear doesn’t keep us safe. Knowledge does.

Vista

Knowledge keeps you from stepping off the cliff. Fear keeps you from seeing the spectacular view.

Knowledge removes darkness from the alley. Fear keeps you from seizing new opportunities, from discovering new paths.

Fear doesn’t come into existence of its own accord but like a virus, is passed from person to person.

The newborn infant has no fear until startled by a parental “No”, the opening dose of fear.

infection

We do not naturally fear others until given a reason. And rarely is that reason the other we have chosen to fear, because fear rarely approaches face on.

Fear is the demon that eats us from inside, a parasite that controls our minds for its own perpetuation.

But what is worse, what makes it so insidious, is that fear is easy, demanding little of us other than that we close our senses to the truth.

And it is the facility with which so many of us are willing to do this that makes fear the most dangerous F word.

Burden

Talk about ALS – no bucket, no ice (video)

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around my problem with these ice bucket videos in support of ALS. Something didn’t sit right with me, and yet I felt like a complete jerk crapping on all these lovely people making loving efforts to make a difference.

And then, suddenly, it struck me. Almost none of the video efforts I have seen have included any information about ALS beyond how to spell it. They’ve done a magnificent job of raising money, but I seriously doubt that many people watching these videos have a clue as to what ALS is.

Thus, in support of their efforts and to spread not just awareness but also knowledge, I have produced a short, very homemade video (click below) with terrible production values (as in none).

I hope it helps.

 

Militaria

I used to be naive;

Without understanding

Of how things worked;

That men and women

Must, on occasion,

Stand up and say no

To sins of Society

To evils of Man

To pain from Nature.

Uniforms were anathema,

Symbols of unthinking,

Mindless drones of hate,

Warriors of destruction.

But now I am older,

More aware of my world,

And I bow my head

In reverence of lives

Sacrificed, dedicated

To helping the infirm,

Defending the weak,

Lifting the downtrodden.

Apologies for past slights

And eternal gratitude.

Photos from the Canadian Armed Forces display at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) last month.