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Name this fallacy!

It’s the fallacy of thinking that, just cos you’re good at something, that everyone should be good at it, and if they’re not, they’re just being stubborn and doing it badly on purpose.

I thought about this when reading this line from Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker:

[Henry Louis] Gates is one of the few academic historians who do not disdain the methods of the journalist . . .

Gopnik’s article is fascinating, and I have no doubt that Gates’s writing is both scholarly and readable.

My problem is with Gopnik’s use of the word “disdain.” The implication seems to be that other historians could write like journalists if they felt like it, but they just disdain to do so, maybe because they think it would be beneath their dignity, or maybe because of the unwritten rules of the academic profession.

The thing that Gopnik doesn’t get, I think, is that it’s hard to write well. Most historians can’t write like A. J. P. Taylor or Henry Louis Gates. Sure, maybe they could approach that level if they were to work hard at it, but it would take a lot of work, a lot of practice, and it’s not clear this would be the best use of their time and effort.

For a journalist to say that most academics “disdain the methods of the journalist” would be like me saying that most journalists “disdain the methods of the statistician.” OK, maybe some journalists actively disdain quantitative thinking—the names David Brooks and Gregg Easterbrook come to mind—but mostly I think it’s the same old story: math is hard, statistics is hard, these dudes are doing their best but sometimes their best isn’t good enough, etc. “Disdain” has nothing to do with it. To not choose to invest years of effort into a difficult skill that others can do better, to trust in the division of labor and do your best at what you’re best at . . . that can be a perfectly reasonable decision. If an academic historian does careful archival work and writes it up in hard-to-read prose—not on purpose but just cos hard-to-read prose is what he or she knows how to write—that can be fine. The idea would be that a journalist could write it up later for others. No disdaining. Division of labor, that’s all. Not everyone on the court has to be a two-way player.

I had a similar reaction a few years ago to Steven Pinker’s claim that academics often write so badly because “their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation—an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild. Many of the hallmarks of academese are symptoms of this agonizing self­consciousness . . .” I replied that I think writing is just not so easy, and our discussion continued here.

Anyway, here’s the question. This fallacy, of thinking that when people can’t do what you can do, that they’re just being stubborn . . . is there a name for it? The Expertise Fallacy??

Give this one a good name, and we can add it to the lexicon.

70 Comments

  1. Charles Carter says:

    Solipsism?
    Solipsism of expertise?
    Since everyone else thinks just like I do, I’m sure all will agree.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I guess it is a special case of the FAE:

      The linked page describes the FAE as ” in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people tend to (unduly) emphasize the agent’s internal characteristics (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people’s behavior.”

      What Andrew says is “thinking that when people can’t do what you can do, that they’re just being stubborn”, which is indeed omitting considering the external factor “It’s hard!” and instead focusing on the internal factor “being stubborn”.

      • Dan says:

        I agree that this is a special case of FAE. As further support: if confronted with an example of falling short of their own ideal, I suspect Gopnik, Pinker, et al. would attribute it to “good writing is hard” or “that was early in my career and I didn’t have enough practice” or “I was busy and didn’t have time to do a better job”, not “disdain” or “I was stubborn” or “agonizing self­consciousness”. So they’re attributing their own behavior to external factors, but other people’s behavior to internal characteristics.

  2. Aaron Silverman says:

    Could be a kind of normative corollary to the Dunning-Kruger Effect: one way of putting the original finding is that the greater one’s skill in a domain, the greater one (mis)perceives the average person’s skill in that domain. Could lead to judgements like, “If I can do it, then so can you, and therefore since you’re not doing it, you must be lazy or intransigent.” Call it the Fallacy of the Overburdened Middle?

    • Anonymous says:

      Quote from above: “Could lead to judgements like, “If I can do it, then so can you, and therefore since you’re not doing it, you must be lazy or intransigent.””

      This is what professor Gelman wrote earlier in the post:

      “My problem is with Gopnik’s use of the word “disdain.” The implication seems to be that other historians could write like journalists if they felt like it, but they just disdain to do so, maybe because they think it would be beneath their dignity, or maybe because of the unwritten rules of the academic profession.”

      And this is what professor Gelman wrote at the end of the post:

      “This fallacy, of thinking that when people can’t do what you can do, that they’re just being stubborn(…)”

      I note 2 things:

      1) i reason there might be a slight difference between “could write like journalists if they felt like it” and “people can’t do what you can do”. In my interpretation of the 1st sentence, people can do X but choose not to do X. In my interpretation of the 2nd sentence, people can’t do X period.

      2) i reason the word “disdain” is being used because of the specific example to guess/explain/whatever WHY people don’t do X. I think professor Gelman introduced a different word (“stubborn”) as a guess/explanation/whatever WHY people don’t do X.

      Perhaps this shows that the reasons why people don’t do X can be many different things, perhaps it’s impossible to know why people don’t do X, and perhaps the fallacy should be about the general principle, not the specifics.

      If 1) and 2) make any sense, i think what Aaron Silverman wrote (“If I can do it, then so can you, and therefore since you’re not doing it, you must be lazy or intransigent.”) might be the more “optimal” way to phrase the fallacy with one thing changed. I reason the reason people don’t do X should include all options. So my prefered definition of the fallacy would be:

      “If I can do it, then so can you, and therefore since you’re not doing it, you must be doing this because of X, Y, and/or Z.”

    • Michael Schwartz says:

      It’s not a corollary – it **IS** the D-K effect.

      Most people only consider the other half of the argument — and it is what D-K emphasized (esp. in the paper’s title). However, in their paper, K and D clearly point out that, just like unskilled people overestimate abilities, highly skilled people tend to underestimate many abilities (humor, grammar, logic, etc…). The effect on this side is not as strong (judging from the graphs – I haven’t examined the stats in detail) – but it clearly exists.

      • Aaron Silverman says:

        My understanding of the Dunning-Kruger findings is not so much that highly skilled people underestimate their absolute abilities (e.g. changing a tire or solving a rubik’s cube) but that they overestimate the average person’s ability such that they perceive their high skill as not so high relative to the rest of the population (e.g. the average person can also change a tire or solve a rubik’s cube).

        The corollary refers to the introduction of normative language. You have to add judgments of laziness or intransigence (which Dunning and Kruger did not study in these experiments) to get to the phenomenon that Andrew describes.

  3. Shravan says:

    Insider blindness.

  4. Thinkling says:

    Isn’t this basically just false generalization?. “I can do it, therefore everyone can.”

    • jim says:

      I agree. I would call it:

      “Center-of-the-World” fallacy, i.e., the claimant views what they do as the most important or best way to do anything, therefore everyone else should do it their way.

      My biggest personal failing

      • Anonymous says:

        “(…) the claimant views what they do as the most important or best way to do anything, therefore everyone else should do it their way.”

        I wonder if this sentence technically can be interpreted in a way that (i think) might be the exact opposite of what you are talking about :)

        I (think i) can interpret “their” as pertaining to each individual’s “own way”, and not the way of the claimant.

        The claimant views “what they do as the best way to do anything”, but that could perhaps also be interpreted to imply that the claimant thinks that everyone should do what THEY themselves view as the best way to do anything.

        I reason that the interpretation of the combination of the 1st part of the sentence (“the claimant views what they do as the most important or best way to do anything”) and the 2nd part of the sentence (“therefore everyone else should do it their way”) rests on the interpretation of “their”, and what “their” refers to.

        • jim says:

          Dho! I see your point. Let me rephrase: They think everyone should do it their way so really they’re telling everyone else what *they* should do when they should just do what makes the most sense for *them* and then **THEY** should just stop telling them that!

  5. Pierre Dragicevic says:

    Seems related to the curse of knowledge.

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      I agree this can be just a consequence of the “curse of knowledge”: When I know something it looks easy, and I could conclude that everyone should be good at it, and if they’re not, they’re just being stubborn and doing it badly on purpose.

      But instead of making us thinking less of others, the “curse” can also make us think less of ourselves: the “impostor syndrome” mentioned by Liorel. What I know is “easy” (and not valuable) and I am aware that there are so many “hard” things I don’t know well (but other people do!).

  6. I find the flip side even more annoying, which is that outsiders think that something they don’t do is easy. I find this particularly common for two hard things I do all the time: programming (pretty much every aspects: design, documentation, coding, testing, and maintenance) and writing (everything from grant proposals to blog posts). Programming and writing are hard!

    For instance, when I was at Bell Labs, our boss told our group to spend an hour or two the next time we wrote software to “put a nice interface on it.” He was implying that designing usable spoken dialogue interfaces or software back end managers was the trivial work of a few hours. This was from a group that produced a 200 page TCL/TK script of which they said “don’t worry, only a few pages of it are relevant.” This attitude was reflected in management not letting us hire a UI/UX specialist; their position was that it was trivial work not befitting a member of technical staff.

    Fighting against this tendency, especially the “just add one [little] feature to Stan”, is the reason I wind up writing emails that get turned into blog posts.

    • Sid says:

      Actually, writing good software is hard. Programming to make things just barely “work” is easy. People get paid much less that you and I for writing code. Software developers in India get paid ~ 700$ per month for regular work. Many end up hating it because of the perverse economics of it all (too many engineers doing not so difficult to learn things).

      And there are a few lessons that can be learn’t about how people make decisions. People go.. “How many people do it?” “Many?” “Oh it must be easy”. Lord help devs if these guys become our bosses. But this rarely happens ;)

      Conversely if I told people that “I study a this very narrow field, X, in physics” that he/she has never heard of, then hey! it must be hard. I think the best way to talk about this is not to say I am a “Data Analyst” but rather something like “I study the quality of forecast models by studying their variability as compared to ground truth data”. I cannot tell you how many times finding the right words has saved my butt from boondoggle projects my boss thought needed to be done.

      I think people using singular words is a way humans make decisions about complex software. System 1 vs 2. If we all paused to actually unpack the word we would all be better off.

    • zbicyclist says:

      We could go farther, and say that outsiders tend to assume that if you are X, you are an expert in all varieties of X.

      So, if you are writing code, you could put a pretty interface on it: writing intuitive interfaces is a skill; designing database structures is a skill; writing efficient algorithms is a skill; relatively few people will have all these skills.

      So, if you’re a statistician, you’re supposed to know everything about statistics, and so on.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        +1

        But sometimes it’s not just outsiders who make this invalid assumption — there are, for example, physicians who think they know all about the human body, and ignore the information the human who has the body gives them. (Worst case example: surgeon amputates the wrong hand.)

      • Mikhail Shubin says:

        Sometimes it is not just outsiders. Sometimes you are an expert in X, but you still falsely assume than you should know much more about X. Then it is called Impostor Syndrome.

  7. Steve says:

    I think this is the same fallacy as thinking that my experience is representative of everyone else’s experience. I made money, why can’t you? I got a degree, why couldn’t you? I didn’t get addicted to drugs, why did you? I’ve never bee discriminated against, therefore you haven’t either. I always had access to medical care, you could too if you just did things the way I did.

    The list goes on.

    Son call it personal representative bias.

  8. This isn’t it exactly, but there’s something I’d call the Stradlater-Ackley Fallacy, which attributes competence to some arbitrary innate or accidentally acquired trait. In The Catcher in the Rye, Ackley says of a star basketball player, “He has the build for it,” and Stradlater reduces Holden’s writing ability to knowing where to put the commas. Neither acknowledges the effort it takes to become good at something. In an important sense, Gopnik is pulling this fallacy on Gates, as though his lucid writing is just a choice he’s made, available to anyone at any time, rather than a skill he has developed. God, how I hate that stuff!

  9. Liorel says:

    I think this is related with the impostor syndrome. In the impostor syndrome, someone highly skilled in a domain underestimates the time and effort it took them to acquire this skill and is afraid to be exposed as an impostor. It seems logical that the counterpart of that belief is that you would believe anyone could acquire your skill, given how easy it was to acquire (in the “impostor”‘s view). Therefore, anyone not displaying the same skill level must be disdaining it.

    This is why I like “insider blindness” (maybe “insider’s blindness” because it’s clearer on who is blind to who): it’s pretty much that being an insider makes you blind to the obstacles you had to overcome.

  10. Kyle C says:

    Based on my unhappy memories of youth baseball, I would call it the “Keep Your Eye on the Ball!” fallacy. (Thanks, coach. If I could do that, I wouldn’t need your advice, would I.)

    A more obscure reference via vaudeville could be the Talcum Powder fallacy.

    “May I help you find anything, sir?”
    “Talcum powder, please.”
    “Just walk this way, please.”
    “Well, if I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.”

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “Based on my unhappy memories of youth baseball, I would call it the “Keep Your Eye on the Ball!” fallacy. (Thanks, coach. If I could do that, I wouldn’t need your advice, would I.)”

      Or the “Why didn’t you say that earlier?’ fallacy. (How frustrating to have someone say that, when you were at a loss for words earlier — or when “earlier” refers to several years ago, when you didn’t know “that”.)

  11. Adede says:

    I find a lot of journalism to be poor writing. And even some well-written journalism is in a style that is inappropriate for an academic work of history. So the real fallacy is thinking that all writing should conform to a certain rubric, which even its own practitioners imperfectly follow.

  12. Robert says:

    “It’s the fallacy of thinking that, just cos you’re good at something, that everyone should be good at it…”

    Modesty?

  13. Manuel says:

    The Clone Fallacy, as in “We’re all clones”.

  14. Roger Schlafly says:

    If you figure out a name, you can also add it to this list, if it is not there already.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

    • Anonymous says:

      I sometimes feel some folks use sentences like “everyone is biased” or “you’re biased” or “that’s bias” dismiss something someone says or writes by incorrectly assuming, and/or stating that they are biased hereby not really (rationally) thinking about what is being said or written.

      I have dubbed it “the bias-bias” in an earlier commment to one of the blog posts of this site :)

      Side note: Haha, i just googled the term to see if it already exists. Here is a paper called “the bias bias” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014829631500154X

      “We argue that the benefits of simplicity are often overlooked because of a pervasive “bias bias”: the importance of the bias component of prediction error is inflated, and the variance component of prediction error, which reflects an oversensitivity of a model to different samples from the same population, is neglected.”

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        “We argue that the benefits of simplicity are often overlooked because of a pervasive “bias bias”: the importance of the bias component of prediction error is inflated, and the variance component of prediction error, which reflects an oversensitivity of a model to different samples from the same population, is neglected.”

        I wonder if this could be expressed more simply? ;~)

  15. Steve says:

    It’s the Sicilian Fallacy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15_-cKwNWDA If you think you are a master strategist, you assume that your opponent will try to outsmart you, instead of realizing that he is just immune to the poison.

  16. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Tout le monde, c’est moi.

  17. Terry says:

    How about “shouting at foreigners”?

    You understand your language effortlessly. You have since you were a child. You’ve never met anyone that doesn’t understand you. Why can’t this silly French person understand me? Maybe if I talk louder and more emphatically, they will understand.

  18. Tom says:

    Its the soccer star coaching fallacy. Soccer (in Britain at any rate) has this tradition of taking a great player and making them the coach of the team. This is generally a bad thing because they tend to suck at coaching. One of the reasons they suck is that they were a great player so all the technical things on the field of play were easy for them, they never had to struggle through and learn how to do stuff. They tend to be incapable of relating to the people who do have to struggle with these technical aspects and get frustrated with the players around them.

    • So is Zidane the exception that proves the rule, because watching Real Madrid under him was like watching ballet, and they fell apart shortly after he left. I often wonder if they weren’t sandbagging this season to get him back with a rock solid contract.

  19. The Growth Mindset Fallacy….

    “The only reason you can’t [write, do statistics, etc.] is that you have told yourself you can’t–that is, you have adopted a Fixed Mindset. Exchange it for a Growth Mindset, and you will see: even if it takes you a while, you will steadily build insight and expertise.”

    (While containing specks of truth, the above statement does not encompass or describe how things actually work. There are numerous reasons, beyond “mindset,” for undertaking or not undertaking a discipline. Moreover, believing that you can improve is only one small part of actually making the improvement; and improvement does not guarantee eventual excellence.)

  20. Adam Schwartz says:

    It sounds like a variant of false consensus to me… with disdain added. So I’d call it “False Contemptsus”

  21. Koray says:

    I suppose both you and Pinker could be right. Writing well is hard PLUS academics are (trained? conditioned?) into a writing style that prioritizes their academic status over general readability.

    • Anonymous says:

      ” (…) PLUS academics are (trained? conditioned?) into a writing style that prioritizes their academic status over general readability.”

      This sentence reminded me of when i was a student at unversity and a fellow student once said to me that i often nicely summarized what the teacher was talking about in simple words when i asked a question about it in class.

      I have thought about that remark from time to time, and i think this could have to do with me possibly being slightly autistic and often needing or wanting to sort of “translate” things i hear of read in my own words (e.g. so i can better understand it).

      I get annoyed when academics use “big words” unnecessarily, or create sentences that go on and on and on. I often think about a quote usually attributed to Einstein (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/05/13/einstein-simple/) in this regard as well:

      “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

      • Anonymous says:

        “I get annoyed when academics use “big words” unnecessarily, or create sentences that go on and on and on”

        Now i’m all riled up!

        What also annoys me is some introductions of psychology papers that read like an entire summary of all research ever done that might slightly relate to the actual experiment that is being conducted.

        I reason these “theories” and “findings” mentioned in the introduction are probably 1) not of high quality or validity (e.g. due to p-hacking, selective reporting, publication bias, etc.), and/or 2) are (selectively) used, and talked about, in such a general way that they can predict or explain just about anything.

        I feel at least 50% of the words of the average psychology paper can be left out (mostly in the introduction and conclusion), as i feel it starts way too generally and from a way to big of a perspective. The conclusion-section does much of the same, and adds a lot of speculation to it which kind of makes it even worse in my opinion.

        I sometimes wonder if some academics perhaps should have, or want to, become poets or novel writers…

  22. Kaiser says:

    The Bowtie Fallacy – for anyone who can’t tie a true bowtie, and tries to follow the instructional manual!

  23. Daniel says:

    Anything I Can Do You Can Do, Stupid

  24. Andrew Adiguna Halim says:

    It’s called narcissism in the field of psychology/psychiatry.
    Or if you cannot change their mind given the contrary evidence and it persisted for more than 3 months, you can call it delusional disorder.

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