Feynman on “experts:”

There are myths and pseudo-science all over the place. I might be quite wrong, maybe they do know all this … but I don’t think I’m wrong, you see I have the advantage of having found out how difficult it is to really know something. How careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something. And therefore, I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it. They haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, they haven’t taken the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know and that they’re intimidating people.”

To underline this, when asked what was most important to success as an economist, students ranked these skills in this order:

  1. Being smart in the sense of being good at problem solving.
  2. Excellence in mathematics.
  3. Being very knowledgeable about one particular field.
  4. Ability to make connections with prominent professors.
  5. Being interested in, and being good at, empirical research.
  6. Having a broad knowledge of the economics literature.
  7. Having a thorough knowledge of the economy.

Yes, in that order.

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  • Tyro  On February 7, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    It’s an interesting response, colored slightly by the fact that those are students (I suspect 4. changes from “professors” to “people above me in the current system”).

    For the field engineering I’m doing now I’d be inclined to agree with 1., but I’ve got a very different job than economics…

    I do break out the pad and paper for trig work occasionally, but for the most part my math is done in excel. I wouldn’t call it required to be excellent with math, just comfortable with the principles.

    Again, my position doesn’t require particular knowledge, though I’ve picked up a lot of piping and mechanical information. I suppose for some of the more exotic materials / systems I’ve been working with continuity has made me very knowledgeable.

    Here’s a list of seven important skills for success as a field engineer. They’re roughly in order, however since I was making the list it’s not quite the same as the students economic skill rankings.

    1. Being able to communicate with someone who doesn’t necessarily have the same understanding/background. This includes translating what you know into something they understand, or taking what they’re asking and putting it into the context that others can understand.
    2. Being smart in the sense of being good at problem solving.
    3. Having an attention to detail. Ability to keep track of many small tasks or recognize fine details within the information.
    4. Being able to ask the “right questions”, either by being able to perform long tail searches or considering the larger picture with respect to the question asked.
    5. Having a broad basis across all engineering disciplines, or at least the ability to understand enough to take it to a discipline expert and ask the “right questions”. This also means the ability to review and engineering package and determine what is being done.
    6. Having a background in science and mathematics that allows the proper use of tools required for the job. It may not mean Fourier transform by hand, but it should be possible to understand the formulas in someone else’s excel file and why they are there.
    7. Having the ability to adapt or be flexible as situations require.

    • reality  On February 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm

      It is interesting in that knowledge of the (sole) subject of study, on which the student is to become an expert, is last on the list. An economist is a specialist, an “expert”. A field engineer is a generalist, by definition and necessity. A specialist must have specialist knowledge and skills in drawing inferences from that knowledge. A generalist must have knowledge of general principles and skills which emphasize communication, teamwork and leadership. One generalist skill missing from your list (perhaps) is that of identifying conflicts and synergies between specialties. The specialist must know a lot about trees but does not see the forest. A generalist knows about forests and forestry but may know little – just enough, anyway – about trees.

      • Tyro  On February 7, 2012 at 2:10 pm

        The comment about identifying conflicts and synergies was “briefly” covered under 4, as it is important to consider the bigger picture based on the question being asked. “Why can’t we just install it over there” comes up a fair bit… the answer frequently involves the other disciplines, for both a yes or a no.

        That being said, my experience with the FRP piping has edged me into the specialist basis, where I’m a point contact for others, specialist or generalist. I think the order of the items would shift, but some would remain the same as well. Specialist order for me would be closer to 4, 3, 2, 6, 5, 1, 7. That being said I’m not convinced that the economists would necessarily agree to the specialist definition, as the third selection was the knowledge of a specific field. From this it would be believable that the students feel a deep knowledge of the ForEx markets (tree) is much more important that looking at the total economy (forest).

        On a side note about communication, it’s always interesting when working on something to discover that other people either had the information or knew where it was, and by paying attention some of the overlap could have been avoided. This is especially important for a specialist who tends to sit within the castle of what they know, even if the castle next door may already have the answer.

      • reality  On February 7, 2012 at 2:26 pm

        In my view having a thorough knowledge of the economy is essential anyone who calls himself or herself an economist. Sure, an economist may go on from there to focus on a particular subject, but in my view context is everything and the lack of that context is a major factor in the failures of economics.

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