On "Parrots" mostly, and Mature Experts

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Above is a grayscale gradient line. I’d like to use this to illustrate a continuum from parrot to mature expert. I'll be talking mostly about parrots because I am not an expert. 

Definition:

Mature Expert (very far right of the continuum in almost pure white)

A mature expert not only has a great deal of knowledge and skills in a particular area, they are experts in other domains as well. They tend to dabble in as many domains of knowledge as they have the time or inclination for. Crucially, they are also wise, mature and considerate members of society who care deeply about things. Mature experts like to share their expertise in order to improve things.

In the dark and light gray areas of the gradient, we have various populations of "Parrots". Parrots are people who may or may not be highly intelligent; they may or may not be attractive; they may or may not be very good people; they may or may not be well liked; they may or may not be industrious; they may possess many positive qualities or many negative qualities or any mix thereof; they may have expertise in certain things, but they are not mature experts. 

There are many types of parrots along the gradient; where and how one kind evolves into another no one knows.  We can only express what kind of parrot a parrot is by virtue of our experience with and observation of a given parrot’s various aspects and behaviors. One could invent a virtual Darwin’s Beagle and spend a lifetime exploring the phenotypes of parrots. And, of course, parrots mostly attend to other parrots although some parrots are more attentive to experts.

The most important and deceptive aspect of parrots is how numerous they are compared to the population of mature experts. 

(Where this blogger lies on the gradient must be determined by those who are interested.)

Many parrots alight upon the gradient and never even know they are stuck at a given point. Others may move back and forth on a narrow band of gradient oscillating in a quivering of musical illusion. For some, the motion of existence all around them will give them the illusion that they are changing while it is, in fact, only the world that is changing; the parrot’s socially and experientially inspired thoughts will only appear to change as a mere reflection of what’s happening around them. 

We all start off as parrots. For a lucky few being a parrot is a journey that ends in being a mature expert.

Most parrots are intelligent people who are capable of learning, remembering facts, fixing problems and growing but are held back for many reasons from achieving any kind of maturity, wisdom or expertise across domains. 

The truly talented parrots will desperately want to be seen as experts. These amazing parrots can perform many interesting tricks. They are often talented presenters, storytellers, and entertainers while not limited to those skills. They make good salesmen. They can be well read. They also often find delight in training other parrots. They are the leaders of parrots. Unfortunately, they are mostly incapable of original thought or creativity. They mistake their ability to understand something, their memory, and their presentation skills as a profound kind of expertise. But sadly, it is only the shallow expertise of a parrot. These kinds of parrots voraciously crave attention. The psychology of these kinds of parrots is truly complex. They can be annoying, they can be jerks, bores, nerds, idiots and morons, but they’re generally harmless unless they get unwarranted attention from a niche audience or consumer base. When this happens their lack of expertise and maturity makes them vulnerable to sharing shallow or inaccurate information with their fans. Mature experts often find that dealing with truly talented parrots is a frustrating and never ending challenge. It is hard for mature experts to correct a talented parrot’s misinformation without sounding like a jerk. 

A parrot in the black area of the spectrum will be entrenched, dogmatic, bigoted, almost violently adverse to change. They feel that they are always right and can always find information to support their positions. Any evidence that might contradict their position will be ignored or rationalized away. They are less considerate, less cooperative, less compassionate, less intelligent, less inspired; diminished in almost every way of measuring a human personality. But, they are not irrational. Although they are relatively few in number they represent a very real kind of social pathology. However, they are mostly easy to dismiss and to deal with. They are far too brittle to be a real threat. They lack the ability to evolve into a social pathogen capable of infecting anyone but their own kind. They are an inert cluster, a remnant of a more dormant evolutionary past. 

I don't have time to go into the more dangerous types of parrots, the ones we are familiar with from our history, we can leave that to the polemics of mature and wise experts. I will say however that the most dangerous types we are likely to encounter are the ones most desperate to be liked.

Most of us parrots fall along the middle to right side of the gradient. Unfortunately few of us become experts and when we do we are experts in only a narrow area of a single domain. An expert guitar player, tennis player, engineer or chemist may or may not feel like a parrot when confronting other areas of expertise. This is best described by the Dunning-Kruger effect. 

Dunning-Kruger effect

Parrots toward the lighter shades of the gradient will be aware of this and probably characterize themselves as having expertise in something and being pretty ignorant of everything else. Often this is an exaggeration of either their expertise or ignorance. But it is well known that as one gains a degree of maturity and expertise in more than one domain one becomes aware of one’s lack of knowledge. We often hear people saying, “The more I know the more I know I don't know.”

If we wish to move towards a more evidence-based culture where we learn how to trust experts while developing solutions to problems we will need to become more humble parrots. What can we do to become more humble parrots? How can we help others become more humble parrots? 

The Tools of an Evidence-Based Culture: Implementing Clinical-Practice Guidelines in an Israeli HMO

We can only hope that as people become more knowledgeable, more mature and wiser they'll tend to move further along the right-hand side towards the light. As they move into the lighter areas of the gradient they'll have more opportunities to be humbled. Any chance to fall is a chance to get back up and we hope we can learn from our mistakes, failures, and even our misconceptions. 

I would like to be able to show you evidence of how this is happening, but unfortunately I am not the brightest parrot. I would need more time. I'll keep trying to sweep away my delusions and mature, but it will be hard work and I know I still might fail. Luckily, for those of us who want to become better parrots failure is a good thing.

One thing I seem to know intuitively is that a parrot who’s conscious of needing to be humble in the face of expertise and who desires to become a wiser parrot can often grow and eventually achieve the nature of a humble, more mature parrot. Humble and wise parrots are generally good mentors for other parrots who may be more challenged and less able to progress. 

Parrots who can’t be humble are fakers and must be avoided! Trust me on this at least. 

Bertrand Russell: He may not be the most humble of men but he was a true and mature expert.

Bertrand Russell: He may not be the most humble of men but he was a true and mature expert.

"A bad teacher will aim at imposing his opinion, and turning out a set of pupils all of whom will give the same definite answer on a doubtful point. Mr. Bernard Shaw is said to hold that Troilus and Cressida is the best of Shakespeare's plays. Although I disagree with this opinion, I should welcome it in a pupil as a sign of individuality; but most teachers would not tolerate such a heterodox view. Not only teachers, but all commonplace persons in authority, desire in their subordinates that kind of uniformity which makes their actions easily predictable and never inconvenient. The result is that they crush initiative and individuality when they can, and when they cannot, they quarrel with it."

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Steven Cleghorn

Steven is an autodidact, skeptic, raconteur and film producer from America who has been traveling since he was a zygote. He's a producer at The Muse Films Ltd. in Hong Kong and a constantly improving (hopefully) Globe Hacker. He's seeks the company of interesting minds.