Beware Status Arrogance

Imagine that you are expert in field A, and a subject in field B comes up at party. You know that there may be others at the party who are expert in field B. How reluctant does this make you to openly speculate about this topic? Do you clam up and only cautiously express safe opinions, or do you toss out the thoughts that pop into your head as if you knew as much about the subject as anyone?

If you are like most people, the relative status of fields A and B will likely influence your choice. If the other field has higher status than yours, you are more likely to be cautious, while if the other field has lower status than yours, you are more likely to speculate freely. In both cases your subconscious will have made good guesses about the likely status consequences to you if an expert in B were to speak up and challenge your speculations. At some level you would know that others at the party are likely to back whomever has the higher status, even if the subject is within the other person’s area of expertise.

But while you are likely to be relatively safe from status losses, you should know that you are not safe from being wrong. When people from different fields argue about something within one of their areas of expertise, that expert is usually right, even when the other field has higher status. Yes people from your field may on average be smarter and harder-working, and your field may have contributed more to human progress. Even so, people who’ve studied more about the details of something usually know more about it.

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  • LemmusLemmus

    I’m not convinced.

    First, I would caution that the status of fields is negatively correlated with outsiders’ ability to say things about that field that are not obviously stupid.

    Second, it seems your view leads to the wrong prediction. I don’t know the parties you go to, but generally speaking people from the humanities (low status) seem much happier to speak about all kinds of things outside their area of expertise than people from the hard sciences (high status). That’s probably explained in large part by the former’s better command of language.

    • anon

      I see people in the humanities talking about other fields as a whole more often, but rarely see them talking about specific problems within those fields. If a specific problem is being discussed, I think non-humanities people are more likely to talk about it.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      That’s probably explained in large part by the former’s better command of language.

      The Verbal IQs of physicists are higher (on average) than those of any social scientists.

  • anon

    My opinion is that the best way to learn is to consistently throw out bold opinions and arguments – though this doesn’t mean you should be impolite. You’ll be corrected if you are wrong, and you’ll be immune to intimidation otherwise. Of course, this could involve a large hit to status, but having a reputation for boldness and truth-seeking might outweigh it.

    Why do you think expert opinions are so likely to be correct? I’d agree they’re more correct in general than laypersons, but I think that ignores a lot of specific evidence that could be relevant, like choice of field or individual intelligence. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for smart non-experts to argue against economists or psychologists.

    • truth_machine

      It sounds like you’re a lousy listener. You may be “smart”, but not wise. Odds are you’re a global warming denier.

      • steamboatlion

        And the model for wisdom is simplifying climate change to a simple for or against and making ad hominem attacks?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I don’t see your inference. I’ll bet three status points, even odds, he’s not.

        That notwithstanding, global-warming denial seems apropos. Applying RH’s analysis, can we conclude that nonexperts feel free to deny global warming because climate science is a low-status discipline?

        [Recall that endeavors demanding cross-field expertise are low-status, presumably because they’re hard to credential.]

  • truth_machine

    Consider, say, astrology, theology, or homeopathy. “Experts” in these fields are only experts on the *internals*, on what practitioners in the field claim, what the terminology is, etc.; they aren’t experts in such *external* matters as -> truth-finding <-.

  • Army1987

    How comes I can’t paste text into this thing (with Firefox 31.0 for Ubuntu 14.04)?

    Do you have any example of “if Field B is lower status you feel free to speculate”? If the difference is as vast as A = physics, B = astrology I might agree, but for more moderate differentials I’d be cautious even if B was lower status. Am I falling prey to the typical mind fallacy?

  • joeteicher

    Is there some generally agreed upon hierarchy of field status that people can refer to? Is it just common knowledge for academics how they stack up to all other academics?

    I don’t go to parties with academics much, but I do notice that people with all sorts of backgrounds will discuss things that fall within social sciences. Does that mean that social scientists are lower status than everyone, or does it just mean that people like to discuss certain topics and always have, and some of those topics are studied by social scientists. I also notice that people like to talk about movies. Does that mean they feel they are higher status than Stephen Spielberg?

    Anyway, like many OB posts I feel like I would have a better sense of what Robin was saying if he put in some examples rather than leaving it completely abstract.

    • agree with the post above

      I would like to go back to a more basic issue. Robin stated many times that “social scientists know lots” but he never ventured to identify those things in particular. I’m still skeptical. There should be a dedicated post to that (maybe a list of key insights?).

    • IMASBA

      You make a good point asking whether some subjects are simply more likely to be discussed by people, period. In reality that’s probably part of the equation and it’s up to Robin to show to us whether his status theory is a more dominant factor or not. It is however not necessary for a generally agreed upon hierarchy to be public knowledge. Individuals can create such rankings in their own heads and if they use similar reasoning and sourcing their rankings can overlap quite a bit without there ever having been coordination, just like people learn most of their vocabulary from sources other than dictionaries and still manage to understand each other most of the time.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I think that when someone implies expertise superior to an actual expert who’s present, affront is usually intended. Robin’s correct inasmuch as such affronts are delivered as displays of status or power by those with high status.

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  • Jason Young

    i’m not an academic, so what do i know, but it seems to me that long-term prestige more or less corresponds to level of abstraction. if true, that would imply that higher prestige fields contain (math contains physics, physics contains chem/bio, etc.) lower prestige fields and thus more prestigious academics really ought to be granted more conjectural freedom than their lower prestige colleagues. that doesn’t mean they’ll be reliable generators of worthwhile hypotheses, but being less likely to violate known general laws when speculating probably improves the accuracy of your guesses by, i don’t know, a lot.

    with that said, these days it’s just hard to say anything interesting about any subject at all without knowing a lot of subject specific facts, so i agree with the thrust of the post and appreciate the reminder.

  • Joshua Brulé

    > …people who’ve studied more about the details of something usually know more about it.

    I would add the constraint that the expert in the other field probably knows more about their topic than you if they’re confident/clear enough to offer testable predictions (at least conceptually testable, I understand it’s often impractical or unethical to actually run the experiments). I’ve met too many so called “experts” who will twist their claims to the point of unfalsifiability.

    This generalizes to “Believe that experts know more about their field than you unless you have excellent reason(s) to believe part of their reasoning is broken.”

  • Lord

    Instead of tossing out speculations, wouldn’t the more useful practice be to ask lots of questions? Sure, people often prefer being ignorant to showing it, but isn’t that what we should be striving to overcome?

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