The delusion of omnicompetence

In the context of the failure of the failure of the Affordable Care Act exchanges, Megan McArdle relates a fun anecdote about a user who expected too much from his speech recognition software:

“Hold on, please,” I said. “Can you show me exactly what’s not working?”

“It’s not doing what I want,” he said.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I want it to be,” he replied, “like the computer on `Star Trek: The Next Generation.’”

“Sir, that’s an actor,” I replied evenly, despite being on the sleepless verge of hysteria. With even more heroic self-restraint, I did not add “We can get you an actor to sit under your desk. But we’d have to pay SAG rates.”

I’m sure we’ve all been there. But there’s a wider point made by the article, and you should read the whole thing. McArdle argues that there’s a more systematic problem with people who are smart in one domain assuming that they are equally able to handle any topic, “the delusion of omnicompetence”, as she puts it:

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. […]

Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well.

This is definitely consistent with my experience of software engineers, who often seem to feel that they are the most important people in the company. And I’ve certainly met academics who look down on anyone without a PhD.

An interesting thing to me is that in my experience (and I may be biased), the type of intelligence that good engineers have actually does transfer to other topics. I’ve had many a conversation about business strategy or marketing or history or politics with my fellow engineers, and I believe they are generally highly perceptive and rational.

What engineers often are, though, is ignorant. I believe one issue is that understanding of computers comes so easily to people like us that we tend to view with suspicion disciplines that require more study. It may seem like people who study history, say, are taking refuge in a subject where hours of grind can make up for lack of incisive brilliance. And that gives rise to a naive faith in perfectly logical solutions that somehow omit to deal with the real world. In other words, thinking we’re good gets in the way of being the best we can be.

This is a wild generalisation of course. But probably nearly all of us can stand to make some improvement in the degree of respect we accord to other professions, and absolutely everyone can improve themselves in some way or other. We shouldn’t let a (correct) sense of satisfaction in our achievements hold us back.

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