Speaking With Authority on Subjects You Are Not Authoritative About

I've been on vacation for a couple of weeks, which has given me some down-time to do some reading and thinking.

Of course, what I have thought about may not always be what the author intended for me to think about, but it tends to be the books with unexpected inspiration that I will remember the longest.

One lesson I really hope I remember: don't use any authority you may or may not have earned on one subject to push assertions on another subject you actually don't know quite enough about.

I picked this little tidbit up from The Math Instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats, and Dogs). Now, overall, it was an entertaining read, with some good tidbits to think about. The author earned my trust over the course of the book, to the point where I would begin to take for granted some of his assertions.

And then he had to go and make an assertion about something he apparently knows a little bit less about: biology.

Clearly, the author is passionate about his belief in the fact of evolution. But he made the following assertion: "That's far too short a time frame for there to have been any major structural changes in the brain - evolution occurs over hundreds of thousands if not millions of years."

Evolution simply isn't time-bounded. This statement is false. Look at the evolution of the peppered moth. That has happened since the industrial revolution - far fewer than hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is the rapid evolution of bacteria that causes problems with preventing disease. With fewer necessary structures to worry about, higher mutation rates in viruses accelerate this even further.

Major structural changes in the brain are generally prevented because there is extensive error-correction for genes in humans - unbounded mutation would lead to far more ways of creating a human that simply don't work at all, so humans with error correction will be favored over humans without error correction. Furthermore, there are fewer selective pressures on brains - a person with a mutation that causes him or her to have some unique capability may leverage that to, perhaps, make more money, but the person without this advantageous mutation is going to have exactly the same opportunity in most cases to reproduce and pass on his or her genes.

These arguments spun around my head for a bit, and I considered trying to track down the author to vent my frustration for spoiling a perfectly good read with something that was so clearly wrong. But then I realized that, instead, I should find Keith Devlin and thank him instead. This is a blunder that is all too easy to make, and it served as a wake up call to pay attention. I know a little bit about Windows application compatibility, but I could always know more. I know a little bit about Shims, but the folks who write them know more. I respond to a lot of questions, and on more than one occasion I have had to send out a mea culpa owning up to something I was wrong about (which I feel is critical to do, and I hope I haven't forgotten one). And that's with subjects I genuinely am considered somewhat of an expert on. There are plenty of other subjects about which I am genuinely interested and will write about that are more of me thinking aloud than me speaking with authority. I just hope I never use the wrong tone so people quote me as authoritative when I am not. Particularly if I happen to be wrong. Nevertheless, I suspect I probably inadvertently will.

So, thanks, Keith, for giving me a few hours of truly pleasurable reading. And thanks even more for an otherwise innocuous oversimplification that made me realize just how important earning trust and authority is, and how much more important it is not to take that for granted or over-extend it, intentional or not. And for the reader, there is really only one antidote. Just keep reading. Trust but verify. Round out your perspectives. Because you really can't help it - it's a psychological shortcut to take assumptions into account that you are likely not even aware of. Me? I plan to be especially vigilant when discussing topics that may have a blur with subjects about which I actually (mostly) know what I'm talking about. Beyond that, I'm pretty casual, so I'm sure I'll make a few slips.

I'm not sure exactly how to thank Keith, since I don't actually know him, so I figured I'd just link to his books. They are genuinely entertaining and informative. Plus, they'll remind you of just how beautiful mathematics can be. I think we forget that sometimes.

Have a happy new year, and a very compatible 2008!

Comments (4)

  1. Kevin Daly says:

    I think the truth is somewhat more nuanced than you suggest: different kinds of changes can be expected to require vastly different times to occurs because of differences in the complexity of the features involved and the number of genes concerned etc.

    For example, pigmentation of eyes, skin and hair in humans seems to have shown considerable variability over a short time frame. These are areas where small random changes in one or two genes can have noticeable effects without making the mutants fatally disabled or completely non-viable.

    The brain however is a very complex beastie, and useful structural changes are not a simple matter, and would seem to require very incremental changes to avoid fatal defects. On the other hand progressive improvements in a single feature could occur over a fairly short time frame (a case in point would be the way the structures involved in spatial memory have been enlarged in Australian Aborigines over the course of the last 50 000 years in response to environmental pressures, resulting in a measurable improvement in their efficacy)

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    On a good note, when you speak from your experience, you’re always an authority (e.g. "In my experience …)

    One of the challenges of writing prescriptive guidance, is writing it in a way that it’s precise enough to be accurate, relevant enough to be useful, broad enough to be reusable, but not stretched so far it becomes inaccurate.  

    Based on what I run into everyday, a lot of perfectly good information, "breaks" depending on how it’s used or portrayed (perspective, context … )  Bridging perspectives is tough.  What’s interesting is I think that for just about any statement, you can ask, "how might that be true" AND "how might that NOT be true" and you can find answers for both.  I think that’s why the interplay of accuracy, relevancy and timeliness are so important.  Bottom line – making truthful statements in text is tough.  Context gets lost, disclaimers get lost … etc.  I think this speaks to your point that the tone matters and to be careful how you stretch your authoritative boundaries.

    Regarding brain changes, you might find this post interesting on "Focus Changes Your Brain" http://blogs.msdn.com/jmeier/archive/2008/01/02/focus-changes-your-brain.aspx

  3. cjacks says:

    Kevin: your point is well taken, and I clearly oversimplified because, well, I had the license to. Proving a statement incomplete is a simple matter of coming up with a counterexample. Proving a statement right is much harder. I obviously chose the easy way out!

    That being said, the language you use seems to suggest that changes happen more frequently when the gene in question more profoundly affects viability. I think this still doesn’t capture the nuance of selection. We have all of the atomic factors of ordering of DNA molecules making bonds more difficult to break in some places than in others, or more or less likely for substitution. We have genes that have been unchanged since long before humans were around, with others that mutate much more regularly. We have error correction mechanisms at the cellular level. And absolutely none of it cares about anything other than propogating itself – whichever component that is. I wouldn’t want a reader to infer causation from these statements (genes don’t really care if drastic changes would or would not affect viability – there is no intent in the system).

    J.D.: your points are great indeed. And then comes the subtle undertone: how could anything ever get done if we don’t claim our authority and push the boundaries from time to time? I learn more from saying something is true and later finding out that it isn’t than most any other way of learning. If people only talked about what they were sure they would know about, we’d lose the inherent error correction of the informal scientific method that is human discourse. At the same time, managing your reputation is important when you want people to listen to you. And, when you actually do know what you’re talking about, that’s kind of important.

    I wish comments were as front and center as my ramblings – I find them far more interesting than anything I could ever say!

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