The Unexpected Downside of Expertise

I have been researching digital music piracy for nearly six years. For the last four-and-a-bit years, this has come in the shape of a PhD. In effect, what this amounts to is that my full-time job for much of my adult life has involved reading about music piracy and writing about music piracy. When I am not doing that, I am invariably talking about music piracy. In one form or another.

This all adds up to me being an expert on the topic.

I can’t know everything, nor do I claim to. But, within certain parameters, I am the most knowledgeable person on the subject doing the rounds. At least in terms of the psychology angle, I am the top dog (this is easy enough when there’s not many of you).

The issue

Now, and to get down to it, I have come to realise that being an expert on something is not enough for some people. The sad fact is that people rarely bend their beliefs on something when confronted with disconfirming evidence. Dealing with that is sort of my main job right now. For people are wonky decision-makers, armed with a diverse toolkit to deny what is right in front of them and to rationalise what they don’t want to confront. People do it all the time.

I won’t go into details on the specifics of my research, suffice to say I have published an entire academic article on the fact that research methods do not really provide a full picture of what’s what (or in other words, the correct answer to a lot of questions is ‘I don’t know’). But, I have found that people tend to believe in extremes (it is good or bad). The truth is of course quite grey, like DCI John Luther’s coat. Also like the big man with a big walk, it’s morally ambiguous.

The problem

Substitute being an expert on music piracy with anything you like. It could be something wholly non-academic; perhaps you are an avid reader of World War II or maybe you have a foolproof system that reaps rewards at the bookmakers. The point is, when you have established yourself as an expert on something, people should naturally seek out information from you, encouraged by your track record. This happens to me on a regular basis. But, just as often, I will find someone who will flat our reject what I have to say, even though I am not really saying anything at all but am just communicating the findings from research into my chosen topic.

It baffles me how someone can confidently deny something that is as empirically true as what happens when your car runs out of gas (it stops moving, in case you don’t drive). And this is the point: if you reflect on your own experiences, you have something to work from. Yes you might remember it incorrectly, but you can trust it all the same. You were there. With an expert, you are putting confidence in their experiences, believing them to be sincere and honest. Of course, these so-called experts are also prone to various biases and heuristics, but when it involves simply stating known facts from research, why is it so hard to just take their word on it?

I am all for a healthy dose of skepticism, and of course encourage it. As mentioned, so much of my research in fact outright acknowledges how little is known about music piracy, given the sketchy research methods often employed to measure it. But, there are truths all the same.

When I deliver a talk and explain how research categorically defines young males as the prototypical ‘music pirate’, I will inevitably find myself responding to a young man who will claim: “I don’t do it”, as if I will then fall to pieces and re-think my thesis to take account of you.

And herein lies a major issue: people think they are exceptional. People think they are unique and immune to being categorised as part of an ‘average’ something-or-other. That and an imperfect understanding of how science works.

The solution

How could someone be expected to understand what I am talking about when they have no idea of what it is I am talking about? Up to a point, I can work harder to be clearer or better present my case, but in the end, if someone simply doesn’t want to hear what I have to say, they will find a way to reject it. That is on them. And, it isn’t endearing, so it doesn’t inspire me to put in any more effort to try and convince them. And that’s sort of the whole point: I am not trying to convince anyone of anything. I am simply telling people facts.

Comedian Stewart Lee once joked about a taxi driver’s response to the funnyman’s intellectual defense of homosexuality. Unconvinced and unimpressed, the cabby replies: “Well, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”.

Sadly, the reality is that you can’t.

For me, this adds up to me having to work much harder to convince people of things they ought not need to be convinced of. If I am correct, as evidenced by evidence, then it doesn’t occur to me to have to really put in the effort to make the case for this or that. There it is. Increasingly however, I am discovering that people do in fact need that little bit extra, that human touch to really crystallise what is going on. Sometimes all it takes is a good analogy or to just change some buzzwords. Sometimes all it takes is to re-situate the issue in a different context, one that they can better understand.

But, there is a ceiling. As noted, if someone really doesn’t want to hear what you have to say, then there’s no use in trying to persuade then.

Pre-eminent psychologist Steven Pinker (an expert I trust and respect) summarises the sum of man’s limitations in a single sentence: “Humans are cursed with the deadly combination of a highly fallible memory and an overconfidence in what they know”. Not much more to be said there really.

People will claim to know something you tell them as matter of fact, even when they have only just been presented with it for the first time. This is simply as it fits with their view of the world. Often, it does not.

Pinker explains:

“Just because something happened to you, or you read about it in the paper or on the Internet this morning, it doesn’t mean it is a trend. In a world of seven billion people, just about anything will happen to someone somewhere, and it’s the highly unusual events that will be selected for the news or passed along to friends. An event is a significant phenomenon only if it happens some appreciable number of times relative to the opportunities for it to occur, and it is a trend only if that proportion has been shown to change over time”.

Pinker’s ability to succinctly explain something so complex with such style goes a long way in making his points credible, reinforcing his already well-established expertise.

For communication is key. The facts alone just won’t cut it.