A few days ago I wrote the post Google Expert – Noun? Verb? – First Run At It and today I am taking the second run at it. The reason I am doing it is because the article I intended to write was not what I ended-up writing. This is often the case when I get into writing about something I think is important. My brain goes off and does its own thing and my consciousness is left trying to stitch together the outcomes of the various processes the initial thought triggered. It would be silly to be upset about this because it is only a brain after all and it cannot help itself from acting like one.
Recall that I said:
… the 2019 Kentucky Derby that was run on May 4 saw the first disqualification in the history of the race. The horse that crossed the line first was later disqualified because it seemed to change its path and was deemed to have impeded another horse. A lot of people are commenting about it. I don’t know anything about horse racing so I don’t know if the DQ is appropriate. Google experts.
Assuming, because I am, using the term “google experts” as a noun. It’s intended to be slightly ironic or maybe a little sarcastic. Google-experts are a relatively new thing, but there have always been people who are full of crap. The only time there were not people who were full of crap is when there were no people. It’s hard to hold this against people because our large brain makes a lot of things possible that are not desirable.
The main trait of the brain that doesn’t entirely work for people is their need for certainty. It doesn’t work because the world has always been so insanely complicated that the chances of us being certain about most things is never going to be 100%. We can exclude the pure sciences from this – there is a right answer to most of the things in science, even the things that we do not know yet – leaving everything else. Math, for example, is a realm that deals with certainty in terms of there being a correct answer to questions and a near infinite number of incorrect answers. You are certainly going to be wrong when you say that 4 times 4 is 19 or 367, just as you will be certain that you are correct when you say that 4 times 4 is 16. And given that most things in science are governed by mathematical formulas, these things have a right and wrong answer. When we learn and follow the proper processes we can be certain that the answers we generate will be correct.
About almost all other things, certainty isn’t something that most of us will ever have a legitimate claim to. But that isn’t how we feel about them. Putting aside your keen ability to manage and coordinate a diverse and complex collection of actions taken by the people you work with, or your impressive ability to analyze spread sheets to uncover trends in complex global markets, or your legendary ability to write a tune and lyrics that capture the ubiquitous suffering that is being alive – or whatever expertise you have in your area of specialization – you are not an expert in anything else. In most other things, you have the average level of ability, which is to say almost none because most people do not know anything about most things. The Pareto distribution more or less dictates that 20% of the people have 80% of the resources. This leaves everyone else sharing the remaining 20%. The statistical analysis is based on things for which there is a finite quantity; money for example, 80% of the worlds population share 20% of the worlds money.
In a way, but not a big way, Pareto does not apply to things for which there is an infinite supply. Fluency in language is an example of a non-finite resource. Most people can learn how to communicate in their native language at an average level. Some people will have much higher skill than the average, while others will have much less skill than the average, but for those who are in the middle 60%, they will get along fine. Trouble may only be experienced with the lower 10% meaning the upper 90% will have no functional challenges that are the consequence of their language fluency. BUT the upper 20% will be exceptional while the lower 20% will have noticeably less skill. With common or shared traits, the curve isn’t as steep at the upper levels and is more steep towards the bottom levels.
BUT the capacity to develop language fluency is something that is possessed by almost all people and it only requires exposure and practice to cultivate. In this regard, it is like any other skill, but it differs from most other learned skills in so far as it is a critical survival skill. It is much closer to walking in this regard – given the poor survival outcomes when compared to those who can walk and talk – than it is to bowling. In fact, bowling is something that most people could learn and become very good at. All they would need is exposure and practice. But the distribution of bowling skill maps very well onto the traditional Pareto curve and not at all onto the normal distribution curve.
This is where most people go off course, and it may not be their fault. We are taught the normal distribution curve in school because it is useful for helping people gain a basic level of understanding about statistic. Everyone knows someone who is smarter than them and they know someone who is less intelligent than them. It is very easy to understand the nature of the bell curve with a high bump in the middle, covering 68 percent of the population, and decreasing tails on either side to account for decreasing number of people who are very smart or very low in intelligence. And it works for helping people to understand the distribution of abilities. The problem is that it doesn’t reflect much else and is actually very misleading from a visual stand point. It deals with distribution and NOT quantities. The fact that there is a bump in the middle is an indication that there are a lot of people in the middle. It doesn’t indicate a quantity of something OTHER than people. To see the actual quantity you need to look at the x axis to see the IQ level of 100 as the score that corresponds to the maximum peak of the curve. 100 is the mean score or the statistical average score for EVERYONE in the population.
It’s fine, but it is misleading because it creates the impression, or more accurately, it does nothing to disabuse or prevent the creation of the impression that the mean is a large quantity of something. The truth is, a mean level of anything probably isn’t going to be very much of that thing.
Let’s assume that the global money supply added together equals 100 and that there are 100 people in the world. The average amount of money is 1 unit. Okay, so long as everyone has the average amount of money, everything will be fine because no one will be falling behind. BUT this isn’t how money is distributed. If we assume that money has a normal distribution, the person who is in the middle will have an average amount of money, 1 unit, while each person above them will have more than one unit and each person below them will have less than one unit. This should immediately cause your brain to throw an error. Because it doesn’t make sense and your brain knows that. What is described here isn’t what happens.
We have to assume that every person who is above the middle has at least a little bit more than the person who is immediately below them – if person 50 has 1 unit, person 51 has 1 unit + some amount, person 52 has what person 51 has + some amount, etc…. The same thing goes the other way but instead of adding some amount, it is subtracted. This makes narrative sense, but it isn’t what happens in practice. Instead, the person at the top has almost infinitely more money than the person at the bottom, while the person at the middle has an average amount of money. Again, the brain throws an error. What does it mean to have an average amount of money?
You probably do not have any idea of what it means because the chance that you have ever seen someone who is making the average amount of money is very low. If you are reading this, you are much more likely to be in the top 20% in terms of income than you are to be at the 50th percentile simply because the global supply of money was never evenly distributed. A select group of countries have always had more money that others and there is a very good chance that if you are reading this, you live in one of those countries.
This is why the median value is more frequently used when talking about the distribution of things. The median value is the quantity possessed by the person who is in the very middle. In the above example, it would be the amount of money held by the person who was ranked in the 50th position.
There are benefits to using the median instead of the mean, and there are costs. The benefit is that it can tell a story that feels closer to reality. The mean income for a human being is estimated to be around $2 a day while the median income was estimated to be around $3000 in 2013. There is a big difference here, but when you think about it for a minute or two, it makes sense that the two numbers are so different. Very specific income data is only recorded for countries that have the ability to record it. The 2013 median income value was not the actual income of the person who was at the very middle position, it was the value for the person who was at the middle position for the data that was available. And this brings us to the main cost of using the median instead of the mean. It has the effect of turning down the volume on the outliers – those with almost everything and those with almost nothing. While this maps closer to our lived experience, factoring out these groups of people blunts the impact of reality and it has a profoundly negative effect on our ability to understand statistics.
Everyone has an idea of what a person with no money looks like and can imagine what their life is like. For those who own a computer or a phone, and have access to the Internet, the image generated by the thoughts of an insolvent person or someone who is flat broke is very different from the lived experience of someone who has a median income. But when we look the other way, we have less clarity about what it would be like to live as the richest person in the world. We’re able to visualize an abundance of nice things, luxury trips, the best quality food and clothing, and the ability to buy anything that they want, but the difference between the imagined life they live and the life we live is about the quantity and quality of things – we have a car that we share with our family, they have a number of cars that are much nicer and paid for. We have a modest house or an apartment, they have many giant houses and penthouse apartments that take-up the top three floors of some skyscraper in New York, London, Hong Kong, etc…. We eat a high quality steak occasionally to celebrate something, they eat $400 steak because it’s dinner. But in general, we do not go hungry or thirsty, cold, scared, without shelter or experience any real concern about surviving tomorrow.
At the lower end there is suffering and turmoil, at the upper end there is a glorified version of the life experience of the median person. This does not give us any indication of what having 150 billion dollars is actually like, or of what having that quantity of money means when compared to the average amount of money – either the mean or the median.
The same applies to things like IQ. The smartest person I know personal has an IQ of around 145. This places them in the top 0.25 percent of the population, meaning that they are the one person in about 400 who has this level of intellectual horse power. But it is very hard to tell that they are bright by looking at them, and it can take a couple of minutes to figure it out when talking to them. The best way I can describe the experience of engaging them is that they thing faster than most other people. They have the same capacity for input, they just generate the output at a speed which is noticeably different. And the nature of their output can have a much wider reach or large foot print than the output of a closer to average person. It is as though more mental circuits are activated and these allow them to draw from a lot more information or experiences. Generally though, they arrive at the same conclusion as I would, they just get there faster. However, they are capable of doing things with their brain that I am not able to do. They have a data processing capability that falls outside of my scope, and this is the most common narrative observation that people have about the extremely intelligent.
What does this have to do with google-experts? Well, considering that we are blind to the upper and lower 20 percent and have such a poor understanding of statistics that we do not have a realistic idea of what average anything is like, we are painfully unaware of just how little we know about most things. Assuming that we have an average level of knowledge about some subject, our natural tendency will be to assume that this ability places us at the 50th percentile. This is fine and may even be accurate. But doing so has an automatic and unconscious consequence of mapping this ability to IQ distribution and then making assumptions based off of what we know or believe we know about the abilities of a person with an IQ of 100.
The consequence of doing this is an unwarranted boosting of our perceived ability because we have a difficult time noticing the actual differences between someone with an IQ of 100, 120, 140 or 160. We see that they do different things for a living, but most of their life is about the same as everyone else’s. 100 might be an electrician or carpenter, 120 might be a nurse or pharmacist, 140 might be a physician, and 160 might be a theoretical physicist or surgeon. These are very different jobs and each requires a very different set of skills. But at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, each will drive a car to their destination, each will eat food, and each will need shelter and a sense of security in order to sleep soundly.
I am not suggesting that 160 is better than 100 nor am I suggesting that either one of these people is more valuable than the other. Frankly there are so many people on the planet that the average value of any individual person is nothing to brag about. Each one of us matter to a few people and to the rest of the population we are complete non-factors.
What I am suggesting is that there is a big difference between the average level of something and the level possessed by someone in the top 20%. And this difference NEEDS to be considered and kept in mind when we engage the world in a way that involves people or relies on our abilities in an area that we are not an expert. Specifically we need to generate an awareness of what “average” means in terms of skill or ability, and we then need to allow this awareness to influence our thinking and actions.
Our brain does not do well with uncertainty so it is coded to manufacture certainty and default to this state. When there is nothing on the line, this tendency only harms ourselves because it prevents us from seeking out actual knowledge and wisdom that would allow us to be both certain and correct. But when there is something on the line, or when our actions will impact other people, our false certainty and general misunderstanding of what average is causes a lot of suffering for ourselves and other people. When we KNOW but are wrong, we push forward with things that cause ripples of consequence that will very often make our futures less certain and more difficult.
This is the root of the problem with google-experts. We can do an Internet search and instantly have access to a wealth of information about a subject that, if consumed and remembered in its entirety, would make us an expert in the field. But consuming all of it would take a very long time, and remembering it all is impossible. The search results that google brings forth represents the potential for future expertise but it does not represent instant expertise.
And this is why things are so messed up. Our need for certainty and the brains ability to manufacture it based on very little information, when paired with a google search, results in an instant and unjustified sense that we are an expert in something that we didn’t know existed moments ago. Whatever innate error correction might exist is consciously suppressed by the knowledge that we started off with an average level of ability and have just added to it by reading a couple of search results. All of this is true, but it is based off of a profound misunderstanding of what “average” means.
Average knowledge about a subject that we don’t have expertise in, or didn’t know existed a few minutes ago, is about the same quantity as the average amount of money a human being has. When it comes to reviewing the correctness of a legal decision handed down by the courts, I, like most people, have an average level of knowledge about the legal system and am therefore painfully unqualified to comment on the accuracy of the judgement. I have around 1 unit of legal knowledge and while I can comment on my feelings, I cannot comment on the legal rationale of the decision. I may not like the ruling and be certain that it is wrong, and when I google search it, this certainty will allow me to select the evidence that supports my position while ignoring the evidence the proves that my feeling isn’t appropriate because the ruling was legally sound.
I have watched the horse race and was hit by a couple of things. The first is that the sport looks really dangerous. I was shocked that the horse that appears to have been cut off didn’t get its leg broken by the horse that was in front of it. The second thing was that the ground was really wet, there were pools of water and I started to wonder if horses care about that type of thing? Do horses choose dry ground over wet or wet ground over puddles? The third thing was that I had no idea if what happened was right or wrong in terms of the rules. It was this final thing that lingered. I was forced to accept that I have, at best, an average level of knowledge about the rules of horse racing and that left me completely unqualified to vet the accuracy of the decision the officials made about the disqualification.
Of course, no main-stream news story goes without a google search and once I read what the rules are I had to conclude that I still had no idea about the accuracy of the decision that was made. Making a call like that is hard. It’s complicated because noticing exactly what is happening on the video isn’t something that I am capable of doing given that I have never seen anything like it before.
Once I realized that I didn’t know and wasn’t ever going to know, I started to read the opinions of experts and was quickly faced with a dilemma, I don’t have any idea who the experts are. There were opinions, but nothing to indicate who should be listened to and who was a google-expert like me. The only thing I was able to use as an indication that someone wasn’t an expert was if they used the decision as a way to piggy-back in a different issue. Animal rights advocates used it as a way to talk about the dangers of horse racing, advocates for the elimination of instant replay used it as a way to say that the fastest horse didn’t win, and those with an axe to grind about anything used it as a segue to talk about their issue.
People are entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts. There is no such thing as alternative facts, there are facts and there are opinions. The Internet gives us the ability to uncover the facts, but they are hidden among an almost unending sea of opinions, screeds, and lies told to sell people something. It’s entirely possible that someone could take the time to wade through all of the stuff that is available and come out the other end legitimately informed and in possession of an expert level of knowledge. But like the cultivating of any skill to a high level, this process will take time and a deliberate effort to consume information that doesn’t match the belief we are constantly updating and becoming certain of. The world is very complicated and being certain about anything is a matter of facts, not a matter of feeling.
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