On experts and amateurs

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

The older I get, the more I find this adage lacking. I want to extend it:

“… and never attribute to stupidity that which is adequately explained by you not understanding the problem.”

In 2020, I gave a talk on that idea applied to voting security:

When you see a perplexing claim in a field that is not of your expertise – which is most of the time – you’re likely wrong if you blame malice or stupidity. Chances are, you don’t understand the problem.

Why don’t we just make election day a holiday? Why don’t we just count ballots by hand? Why can’t we just vote online? Why do we need QR codes on ballots? I can give you the detailed and nuanced answer to these questions, and yet many will assume malice or incompetence. I get why they’re asking and I understand why they assume malice or stupidity. They’re wrong, but I get it.

So I’m working to make sure that when I think about other domains where I’m not an expert, I don’t jump to conclusions of malice or stupidity. For example:

  • I’d really like to see fewer innocent people shot by police. The incidents we keep hearing in the news are deeply disturbing to me. But… I don’t know the first thing about policing.
  • I’d really like to see affordable quality healthcare for everyone. The private medical insurance system appears badly broken to me. But… I’m not a health policy expert.

The value of amateurs

On the flip side, experts are too quick to dismiss the perspective of amateurs. If you’re an elections expert and someone asks you the same “dumb” question for the 100th time, it’s easy to dismiss it. But there is great value that comes from asking basic questions without the burden of expertise. Expertise can prevent you from seeing the big picture. Expertise can constrain your thinking. Expertise can make you miss the whole point.

While the amateurs asking the questions may be asking for moonshots without any sense of what it takes to get there, asking for something without the burden of how to get there is still very important. It is the experts’ jobs to solve for those outcomes, even if their expertise blinds them to the possibility at first.

To continue to pick on the examples where I’m not an expert:

  • I want a world where innocent people don’t get shot. We should all want that. I’m sure that when you consider the expert details of policing, it’s a lot harder than it sounds. So I’m going to assume folks working on this are neither malicious nor stupid, but I don’t accept that we can’t make progress on it. I want policing experts working on this.
  • I want a world where a medical emergency doesn’t cause bankruptcy. No doubt this is hard, especially given our starting point in the US. I’m going to forgo assumptions of malice or stupidity, but I don’t accept that we can’t solve this problem.

Amateurs Ask, Experts Answer

I want a world where amateurs ask and experts answer.

Amateurs bring tremendous value by focusing on a desired outcome. Experts bring tremendous value in determining what’s possible and blazing a path towards those outcomes.

We need humility on both sides. Amateurs must accept that their simplified view of a particular domain is often fundamentally wrong, and so getting to a desired outcome is often much harder than it seems, maybe sometimes impossible. Experts must accept that their detailed knowledge can blind them as to the desirable societal outcome.

And of course, even the world’s greatest expert in one topic is an amateur in hundreds of others. Experts often forget this. Expertise is not an easily transferable skill.

Don’t attribute to stupidity what can easily be explained by you not understanding the problem. And don’t dismiss the wishes of those who don’t understand the problem.

We need experts and amateurs.





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