Jack Ganssle, Editor of The Embedded Muse Jack Ganssle's Blog
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June 10, 2020

The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols is a short and excellent book bemoaning the world's increasing rejection of skilled and knowledgeable people. It's a couple of years old, but I just read it and feel it matches the 2020 zeitgeist perfectly.

An example, of course, is the anti-vaccine crowd that substitutes emotion for science. Aided and abetted by celebrity morons like Gwyneth Paltrow who prey on pocketbooks by pushing potions of dubious (at best) effectiveness, too many people substitute obsessiveness with stars over cold, hard, facts. Cold, hard facts are, of course, cold and hard and not nearly as bankable as weeping, sadness, and stories of overcoming hardship or descriptions of descents into madness.

In engineering we live and die by cold, hard facts. So sometimes I have trouble understanding just where some of these people are coming from.

The Death of Expertise is a witty and very well-written book. I guess we engineers would all cheer it while others might find its message heretical. He states that once experts were highly regarded. If a doctor told you to take your meds, you did. Now, maybe not. Wiccan rites might preempt antibiotics. I remember taking a childbirth class prior to my son's arrival; the teacher advised us to respond to well-meaning but ignorant advice by saying "Doctor says…", which, in those days, would often short-circuit an argument. Now, perhaps not so much so.

The word "elite" has lost any real meaning. It used to mean someone of high class. Or someone who is good at something requiring deep knowledge. Perhaps an expert. Now it seems to be THEM – those miserable educated people who live on the coasts and make us do awful things. Yet many of those who complain about these elites, who are paid good salaries to pontificate about the declining state of the world, are educated people who live on the coasts. Elite = expert = bad, unless it's you complaining about those other elites.

Go figure.

Nichols posits that maybe too many people go to college. And that too many courses of study are what we used to call underwater basket-weaving: fun, maybe, but not of much account in the real world. If you read Rod Dreher in The American Conservative you're left with the impression that all colleges now are hives of political correctness, that you can't study English without dealing with all sorts of left-wing zaniness. It has been a very, very long time since I was in college, but it's hard for me to believe that calculus or transistor theory is steeped in anything but those cold, hard facts.

Perhaps engineering and science are immune. Or maybe even those bastions of rationality have changed. I hope not.

The book ends grimly with not much in the way of useful prescriptions. He suggests we practice humility. And that is really the point of this blog.

Engineering is all about using cold, hard facts to make things that work. But engineers are humans filled with buckets of hormones. We always want to be the smartest people in a room. And we like to be right.

But usually we're wrong. Case in point: bugs. None of us write bug-free code and we've all spent years sweating over a hot IDE setting breakpoints and collecting trace data. I'm glad the editor doesn't log the number of changes made to a file! How often have you covered a protype board with a sea of green wires to make it work?

If we can approach our work with humility we can recognize that we're error-prone. Maybe, if we can start a project humbly, we can work more proactively, and employ better processes to mitigate our mistakes. "What could go wrong" is a better way to start thinking about an engineering effort than "I can knock this out in a day!"

Feel free to email me with comments.

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