This post was originally published on April 28th, 2016.
This week’s episode of Freakonomics Radio is about the topic of expertise.1 As someone working towards a PhD studying expertise, I listened with interest: it’s reasonably rare to hear an in-depth discussion about this field, and trying to comprehend other people’s takes upon the subject and reconcile them with the work I’ve been doing. The academic niche that I work in (Science and Technology Studies, specifically the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, which is heavily social constructivist in its approach) draws on a slightly different set of approaches to the topic of expertise to those cited in Freakonomics, which come more from the Psychology side of the spectrum of social sciences. As a result, I have a few thoughts about the framework of expertise articulated in the programme. Hopefully some of them might be considered constructive.
The academics consulted in this episode, chief amongst them Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, advocate for the idea that expertise can be achieved through ‘deliberate practice’.2 This effectively cashes out as activity which constantly pushes its practitioner out of their comfort zone, often focussing upon ameliorating specific problems or stumbling blocks which they may currently be facing. They note that peak human performance in many areas has improved dramatically over recent centuries: the record time for the fastest marathon has decreased by nearly an hour since the first modern Olympics in 1896;3 Mozart’s ability to perform music at various stages of childhood would likely be considered ‘average’ amongst children at a musical academy today; and so on. The idea is that we stand on the pedagogic shoulders of giants: over time, we have learned the ability to learn better.
The ‘10,000 hour rule’ popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers also makes an appearance,4 with some discussion over whether this amount of practice is indeed the ‘magic number’ for becoming an expert in something, whether it is how one spends those hours that matters more than the sheer volume, and if the proper formulation might in fact be ‘10,000 hours + basic talent’.
I think the formulation of expertise in this programme might benefit from a couple of interlinked observations.
First, I would posit that what they are describing is not the process of acquisition of expertise; rather, they are describing what it means to become adept at a skill. Much of the discussion is focussed around musical or sporting ability, with a cursory mention of writing at one point during the episode.
It is unclear to me that these are forms of expertise. When we talk of experts in society, we tend to talk about them as people who are unusually knowledgeable or skilled in something, but that isn’t a sufficient condition: there’s something extra. Usually that extra thing is the way we relate to them as experts. We ask them, as representatives of their field (whatever the nature of that field), to solve particular problems for us.5 We ask physicists to tell us about gravitational waves. We ask psychologists to help us understand how we learn. We ask cardiologists to tell us how we can minimise our chances of suffering a heart attack in the future. The crucial aspect of expertise which is missing is its sociality: without it, there is no expertise, there is only skill.
You might ask, so what? This is just linguistic nit-picking. It doesn’t matter if we call it skill or expertise, we just want to know how people get really good at things. I should just get back in my ivory tower and complain to the approximately half a dozen people in the world who care. Fair enough. But I think there’s a deeper insight to be gained from the distinction here. A skill can often be learned in some kind of isolation: I can get really good at playing scales on my piano just sitting in my bedroom with some sheet music.
But there’s something missing. We know that people tend to learn much better when they are taught by others. The best tennis players have other extremely skilled players coach them; the same goes for pianists or even academics. This isn’t just because those people know more stuff. It’s because they know how to apply that stuff. What’s missing from the deliberate practice model is the recognition of the power of tacit knowledge: the things we can’t articulate, but which can only be learned from being immersed in the community which surrounds our interest.6 You can practice your scales as long as you like, but you’re never going to understand what it means to give an emotional performance which makes a crowd love you if you don’t mix with (and learn from) people who know how to do just that.
In fact, it’s impossible to even know what constitutes an emotional or moving performance without socialisation. Why? Because our standards for what is good or bad, overdramatic or underplayed, technically accomplished or pretentious nonsense, all vary between times and communities. The extent of this variation is different in different fields, but it always exists. There was a time when Isaac Newton would have been recruited as a virtuoso physicist; if his reanimated corpse were to be dug up today, he would no longer be considered an expert, because he has spent the last three hundred years not immersed within the culture of physics and mathematics. Zombie Isaac Newton could probably, with time and adequate socialisation, be a great contributor to modern physics. But critically, he would be totally incapable of doing so without becoming part of the physics community: he would not only need to read modern textbooks and academic papers to know what physics consists in nowadays, he would also need to know which journals and authors to take seriously and which to ignore, as well as how to converse in the language of modern day physics. He wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming a virtuoso without extensive social contact with other physicists.
The missing ingredient in this otherwise highly interesting treatment of the problem of expertise acquisition is the social. Malcolm Gladwell recognises in the podcast that ‘you can’t do [10,000 hours] by yourself’, but what he means is that 10,000 hours is a hell of a long time and you’re likely to need people to help you with perform your basic needs whilst you’re playing fifty games of chess every day. Even if that weren’t true, it would still be the case that nobody can become an expert, or adept, or a virtuoso, on their own. Social immersion and tacit knowledge is at the very core of what it means to be truly great at something, and to be recognised as such.
If you’re interested in STS or the Strong Programme and its approaches to expertise and knowledge, there are a few books and papers I’d highly recommend:
Barnes, Barry, The Nature of Power (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988)
Barnes, Barry, David Bloor, and John Henry, Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis (The Athlone Press, 1996)
Bloor, David, ‘Idealism and the Sociology of Knowledge’, Social Studies of Science, 26 (1996), 839–56
Collins, H. M., and Robert Evans, Rethinking Expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
2K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer, ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.’, Psychological Review, 100.3 (1993), 363.
3Wikipedia, ‘Marathon World Record Progression’, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, 2016 <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marathon_world_record_progression&oldid=716163592> [accessed 28 April 2016].
4Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London; New York: Penguin, 2009).
6H. M. Collins and Robert Evans, Rethinking Expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007).