lost in metaphor, like a child in the woods—wait, that’s a simile…

When I was a young editor at St. Martin’s Press, I was invited to a meeting with Richard Saul Wurman, the founder of TED. Since I managed the Let’s Go series at the time, Wurman’s new travel guide seemed like a fit for me, so I was brought into the conversation.

At one point, Wurman mentioned the ACCESS travel guides he’d created in the 1980s. I drew a blank. His eyebrows shot up.

“You’re a maven,” he exclaimed. “You have to know these things!”

Clearly, this experience stuck with me. Sure, I was just administering the St. Martin’s relationship with the Harvard students who created the Let’s Go guides. Sure, I wasn’t actually a travel book editor in any legitimate sense. Sure, I was still a child when the ACCESS books went out of print. The point was, I was in that room as an expert and I did not bring with me sufficient expertise. After all, I could have read up on Wurman prior to the meeting. I could have done any number of things. A professional would have.

Now, I do my homework.

Sabine Hossenfelder is a professional physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. Basic will publish her upcoming book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, in 2018. If you’re not impressed yet, I’ll add that Obama follows her on Twitter. (Sure, he follows 626,000 people, but with 98 million followers, that’s still pretty selective.)

I digress. (A lot.)

Hossenfelder studies quantum gravity. I may not be a professional physicist myself, but I’m pretty sure quantum gravity is the stuff Ant-Man uses.

Ant-Man shrinking

As a teaching assistant, Hossenfelder started to receive unsolicited emails from amateur scientists, Theories of Everything and the like. (So, in a way, being a theoretical physicist is a lot like being a book editor.) She writes:

The first note was a classic—it proved Albert Einstein wrong. The second one solved the problem of quantum mechanics by dividing several equations through zero, a feat that supposedly explained non-determinism.

At first, Hossenfelder would reply to these misguided individuals with advice, links to lectures, and academic references in the hopes of getting them back on track, but eventually, it got to be too much. She had science to do, after all. And while the nature of time is an open question to physicists in one sense, it’s very much money in another.

Then Hossenfelder had a brilliant idea. (Unfortunately for would-be Ant-People, this idea was unrelated to quantum gravity.) Hossenfelder decided to put up a shingle as a consultant. For $50/hour, she will Skype with any frazzle-haired What the Bleep Do We Know fan about his or her “research”:

My clients know so little about current research in physics, they aren’t even aware they’re in a foreign country. They have no clue how far they are from making themselves understood. Their ideas aren’t bad; they are raw versions of ideas that underlie established research programmes. But those who seek my advice lack the mathematical background to build anything interesting on their intuitions.

Read the whole article about her experience. It’s fascinating to me, primarily because I see this strange behavior so often myself, in the way people feel comfortable opining about the state of book publishing, about politics, about the economy, whatever, based on something someone told them about a blog post one time.

All of this intersects with two of my favorite Maven Game themes:

The death of expertise. Remember how “experts” used to be people with advanced degrees? Then things started to get cloudy. As the culture changed faster and faster, the liberal arts fell further and further out of sync with literature, music, art. Then the internet began to make it possible for a brilliant few to teach themselves how to do extraordinary things with technology, bypassing academia altogether on their way to building the future. Elon Musk, for example, lasted 2 days in Stanford’s PhD program in applied physics before dropping out. Suddenly, all professors were suspect, even in areas like physics or medicine where all the online courses in the world won’t turn you into a scientist or a doctor. The future was autodidactic.

Now we have an administration that actively dismisses and denigrates professional science, professional journalism, professional expertise of any kind. Sure, people used to be able to hide behind their degrees, but now it almost seems like a few letters after your name can actually be a liability when trying to convince “The People”—as Bane would put it—that you know what you’re talking about. How do you establish credibility in 2017? Is it even possible?

The birth of expertise. Even in physics, it’s possible to create a reputation for yourself without actually being very good at physics. It’s a hard science, you say? Not anymore. Most of the prominent work for decades has revolved around the fundamental nature of the universe, theoretical work that our technology won’t be able to verify for years, if ever. Some scientists have made themselves famous through the formal elegance of their theoretical constructs without ever having proved anything. The viral talks and best-selling books don’t hurt either.

There is no sphere of human accomplishment free of bullshit. Even within the walled gardens where advanced degrees are de rigueur.  Bullshit spreads because it’s populist: bullshit explanations are simple and they play into or confirm our prejudices. They are intuitive, though wrong. Bullshit makes us feel smart for understanding it so easily. Real expertise is not intuitive. The truth about complex topics is usually impossible to grasp without the prerequisite understanding and experience. If you have an “aha!” moment listening to a so-called expert explain a complex problem in an area outside your own expertise, you’re being had. Even Richard Feynman, one of the all-time great explainers, knew that you could only explain a phenomenon to the level of the listener’s understanding.

Metaphors, in particular, are suspect, because they can trick us into thinking we understand something we absolutely don’t. The map is not the territory. As Hossenfelder writes:

A typical problem is that, in the absence of equations, they project literal meanings onto words such as ‘grains’ of space-time or particles ‘popping’ in and out of existence. Science writers should be more careful to point out when we are using metaphors. My clients read way too much into pictures, measuring every angle, scrutinising every colour, counting every dash. Illustrators should be more careful to point out what is relevant information and what is artistic freedom. But the most important lesson I’ve learned is that journalists are so successful at making physics seem not so complicated that many readers come away with the impression that they can easily do it themselves. How can we blame them for not knowing what it takes if we never tell them?

The next time you feel sick reading the news and watching the very idea of expertise come under attack, ask yourself: What can you do today, in 10 minutes, to sharpen the saw, to deepen and expand your knowledge? How fully embedded are you within your community? If you’re a marketer, do you talk to other marketers? Attend conferences? Read not only books on marketing but the behavioral research papers they endlessly reference? How often do you challenge your own assumptions with real-world experimentation?

In the end, are are you like these armchair physicists, mistaking metaphor for reality? If so, what can you do to turn that around and start to cultivate genuine expertise? After all, you’re a maven.

Subscribe to The Maven Game

Don’t miss out on the latest essays. Sign up now.