Biases And Weaknesses

[Last updated January 10, 2016]

There’s a professor at Princeton who is famous for having posted a failure CV, of the job opportunities he did not receive and the other times he has been rejected. It’s a public display of failure and an admission of his weaknesses, in the interests of full disclosure.

It helps us understand who he is – not just the bright and shiny highlights, but the lowlights as well.

This post borrows on that theme.

It’s my attempt to assess my intellectual weaknesses and biases, with the idea that my awareness of them might give me an opportunity to improve on them and for anyone who is reading to understand me more fully. I’ll add to it when I get negative feedback.

Excessive Anti-Authoritarian Bias

Most people trust conventional wisdom and authority too much.

I have the opposite problem.

I’ve spent too much of my life on the hunt for Kuhnian revolutions, and too little time developing conventional expertise in my chosen fields. I have come to appreciate as a middle-aged man that Kuhnian revolutions are exceedingly rare, and they are almost always instigated by someone who has an expert’s or a superexpert’s understanding of a given discipline. My instinct in my youth was to want to debunk many experts in many fields. I now think this instinct has been the greatest hindrance to my having achieved more success in any given field.

Almost always, the dominant paradigm represents the best understanding of the smartest minds in any given discipline. It is nigh impossible to develop an understanding or insight that exceeds the understanding of those experts.

I love stories of bicycle mechanics that bootstrap a revolution in air travel. Of poor ship-hands who revolutionize commercial transport. Of patent clerks who upend our conception of the universe. Or of autodidacts who become mentors for some of the most brilliant academics in the world. And there is a place for those people even today. But theirs is a story of dedication and obsession in the pursuit of knowledge in a relatively condensed field of study.

Far-flung expert debunkery, I now believe, is the behavior of sophomoric cranks.

I believe that now. But I did not always. And I think that is now a weakness of mine.

Lack of Deep Expertise in a Given Field

I know a fair bit about a lot of different things, but I don’t have a Ph.D-level depth in any.

Weakness in Statistics

My understanding of statistics is superficial, and so much of my argumentation is subject to availability heuristic. To make better arguments, I need to have not just a better understanding of statistical concepts but how to apply them and incorporate them into my arguments.

Privilege

I haven’t been in an academic environment in more than ten years, but I am vaguely aware that there is a thing called a social justice movement and that thing tends to frown on privileged white dudes offering their opinion on a broad range of topics.

I appreciate that I am in the luckiest one percent of the world’s population financially (though I’m not a one percenter by US standards). But I suspect that most of the people who read this blog fall into that category, too (hint, if your income is above $32,400 a year, you do).

So, I am a white dude and all posts should be read as those of a white dude who grew up in suburbia to hard-working Irish immigrant parents, if that means something to you.

Hypocrisy

I now have a very flexible lifestyle, in large part, because for six years I worked at a high-paying law firm. Some of my writing encourages the pursuit of a personal voice and the discovery of meaning through creative and professional work.

It is easier for me to do these things now because I once did that opposite. I appreciate the irony there.

Lack of Organization

I’m just not that organized. Not sure this will ever change.

Prone to Minor Errors and Oversights

I’m ADHD, so I’m not sure this one is going away either. I try to surround myself with more detail-oriented people who make up for this.

An Inability to Appreciate the Difference Between What Academic Writing Just Is and Bad, Purely Obfuscatory Academic Writing

I understand and appreciate that jargon helps experts to get the point quickly. But most academic writing is just awful – in part because of excessive jargon and in part because the authors can’t write – and I stop readying too many good papers and studies as a result. This is where most of the dense, meaningful research is, and I should read more of it no matter how badly written it is.

Not the Best Listener or Reader

I read a lot. I try to read books by smart people who hold viewpoints different from my own. I have become better at focused reading and taking notes and flagging important arguments, but there are many who do this much better than I do.

In conversation, while I believe in principle in Daniel Dennett’s style of disagreement with kindness, it’s not something I always practice.

Politics

My liberal friends would accuse me of being a greedy, selfish capitalist and my conservative friends would certainly categorize me as a lefty. I prefer not to be pigeonholed and would argue that your attempt to categorize me has more to do with your biases than mine.