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The Memory of Expertise

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 06 2011
Sheep Photograph by Daniel Loxton

Llamas! I mean, sheep. I used to know a lot about these critters, back in the 1990s when I took this picture.

I was saddened last weekend to miss Dragon*Con’s Skeptrack in Atlanta—usually a highlight of my year—due to family and professional obligations. I knew months in advance that I wouldn’t be able to go, but there were a number of panels on topics close to my heart (on the scope of skepticism, its history, and its future) in which I would have loved to participate. (Luckily, I was able to watch some of those streaming live, completely for free—something some of you may wish to note for next year.)

But for my family and I, there was a major silver lining: the 144th Saanich Fair! Western Canada’s longest running agricultural fair, the Saanich Fair has been a tradition in my family since—well, since about the 110th Saanich Fair. There’s a special kind of life satisfaction that can only arise when you gaze in wonder upon prize pumpkins and blue ribbon pies. It casts a powerful nostalgic spell. The scents of hay, dust, and manure. The cooing rows of fancy pigeons, each more Darwinian than the last. Teams of draft horses. Supporting the Lions Club through the delicious means of volunteer-sold midway hotdogs. Hearing the screams of teenagers spun, flipped, shaken, and dangled upside down for no good reason. It’s all so familiar and magical—the pleasure of being transported back to childhood (especially now that I have a child of my own to share it with).

But that sense of time travel is an illusion. Which brings me to my topic for today: the fading of expertise.

Agricultural fairs aren’t just for fleecing teenagers with unwinnable midway games (if only crookedness were to blame for my dismal zero-for-three performance at slingshot paintball yesterday, but alas, I was just terrible at it). Events like the Saanich Fair are opportunities for professionals in agricultural production to gather, sell their products, compete for valuable recognition in their fields, and show off their hard-won expertise. Everyone exhibiting—from the 4H kids meticulously hand-combing their steers for auction to the big business equipment manufacturers to the folks competing in the 20-odd categories within the “Chrysanthemum Division” (check out the prize list PDF)—everyone showing at the fair either brings expertise, or is at the start of a path to acquire it.

In what already seems like another lifetime, I could have been one of them. Some of you know that I made my living as a professional shepherd for about 10 years. But leaning on the fence at the fair near all those prize sheep, I was forced once again to confront the truth that I’m a sheep expert no longer.

We were walking over toward the sheep with my five-year-old when he accidentally referred to them as “llamas.” It was just a slip of the tongue, but my wife and I pounced on him with laughing mock horror: “Llamas?! No son of two shepherds will call sheep ‘llamas’ on our watch! Time to begin your education, young man!”

It did my heart good to see my boy gently communing with the sheep. But as I pointed things out to him and answered his questions, I became more and more aware how hazy my knowledge had become. It’s only been a decade since I last worked in the industry, but a decade is a long time. “Wow,” I confided to my wife. “I feel like I can barely tell a wether from a ewe.” Answers that would once have been right there were elusive. Chatting idly with one of the sheep producers, I felt almost nervous: what if she asks something hard?

Expertise is ephemeral. It’s like muscle mass: hard to build, fast to fade away. That’s the truth of it—and that is why UFO author Stanton Friedman’s insistence on being identified as a “nuclear physicist” (or even “the flying saucer physicist”) is so questionable. Friedman earned his MSc. in 1956, but has not, if I understand his career correctly, worked in physics since before I was born. It’s presumably fair to consider him a current expert on the UFO literature; but I would not assume that his knowledge of physics is up to date.

Returning to my own knowledge of sheep, badly faded after just 10 years: I would add that even at the height of my knowledge—a time when my colleagues and I could laughingly boast, “Our kung fu is the best!”—my expertise was very specific. As Barbara Drescher has explained, “It is only at the highest levels of competence that we understand where our gaps in knowledge are. Becoming an expert at anything takes about ten years of study or practice–10,000 hours. Don’t accept less.” I logged that many hours, and became all too aware that my ignorance about sheep was (even then) larger than my knowledge.

What I did was a specialist trade: “silvicultural shepherding” as part of the “sheep vegetation management industry.” I knew how to look after herds of a certain size (1500-2000), including only ewes of breeding age, on landscapes of a certain type (Northern British Columbia tree plantations), during summer months only (100 hours a week!), within a certain type of industry (forestry) for a certain purpose. That stuff I knew very well, by the end—but that’s a tiny splinter of a sub-specialty. An apprentice I trained went on to manage lambing barns; when I visited her on her turf, she was the master, and I was the clueless tourist. My father was trained and certified as a woolclasser, an expert trade about which I know nothing (expert knowledge that he, like Stanton Friedman, let lapse before I was born). I recall a discussion I had with an older, more experienced shepherd from the French Pyrenees about our relative skill sets. I had to agree: in nearly every respect, his knowledge of sheep was superior (and I was quick to borrow as many of his tricks as I could work out). It was only in our shared area of sub-specialty that we were peers.

All moot now, of course. Experience may never fade completely, but it fades quickly—and a lot. Leaning on the fence at the Saanich fair, I was forced to admit that I’m not a current expert on sheep. Today I’m just another city slicker, gawking at the country fair.

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8 Responses to “The Memory of Expertise”

  1. Jarvis Puttinghet says:

    I don’t think the loss of physics expertise is caused by the same thing as the loss of agricultural expertise.
    In my experience, once you bash a certain physics topic hard enough into your skull, you’ll never forget it (until you get Alzheimer’s of course). Physics is like programming, or cycling even: a skill rather than knowledge. It takes me very little effort to get back up to speed on a topic I last looked at ten years ago. But of course the broader field has changed and expanded in those ten years, and in that sense your expertise is no longer quite current.
    The field of sheep farming features much more factual knowledge. Important details and nuances that are known to fade quickly.

    Now, I don’t know Friedman, but most of the important bits of physics (I would say almost everything I learnt even in the naughties) was developed in the thirties, and it is entirely plausible that he would still turn out to be quite a good physicist, if someone would employ him. But even very good scientists sometimes hold very idiotic ideas in their head. I know several mathematicians and physicists who dare not use a microwave oven ‘because of the waves’ even though they should be able to realise how idiotic that sounds even in the context of their own fields of research.
    Being smart doesn’t make your opinions correct. It just makes you better at defending your opinions.

  2. Oof, I had this experience when I was being tested for learning disabilities, and some trigonometry equations were put up on the screen. Though I had aced trig and then tutored it for two semesters, I hadn’t looked at it for over ten years, and it was so gone that it wasn’t even funny.

    I gazed uncomprehendingly at the signs and the operators, and I knew that I used to know exactly what to do and how to work the problem. But no more! I felt my brain rifling anxiously through old memories, and I stepped in so it wouldn’t start fretting. I told the tester, “Yeah, that’s trig, and it’s gone. Next question.”

    Oh, a clarification: The 10,000-hour idea only applies to physical expertise in things such as music, language, and sports performance, and the expertise that is being referenced is that the brain, interoceptors, and proprioceptors can perform the movements without any conscious thought — and can do so much faster and more precisely than the nervous systems of amateurs or lesser-practiced people can. Here’s an update on the original paper:

    The so-called 10,000-hour rule doesn’t actually apply to all knowledge-based activities (like real estate law or accounting). You can become quite proficient in those in significantly less time. Also, the idea that you practice the same exact set of skills for 10,000 hours is also incorrect. Jonah Lehrer wrote on a bit on it last year:

    • Thanks for the fascinating links, Karla.

      Shepherding is a complex blend of activities. A lot of it leans heavily on factual recall—diagnosing illness or injury in the sheep, for example—while another large part is closer to the “movements without conscious thought” you refer to above. The herding part of shepherding may be a decent analogue to music or sports performance. We called the ability to look at the eddies and currents and flow of 1500 sheep and just know where they’re going to go, “stock sense.” It seemed that not everyone could develop stock sense. (Manipulating that flow by moving in the right way in the right place could be compared to dance. We actually used to talk about it in those terms: “She has all the sweet moves. I wish I could do the dance like that.”)

  3. Heather says:

    Loved this post. I’ve wondered myself about my university training and if any of it is still credible to cite! I appreciate the other comments indicating learning is not the same across the board. In my case, as a generalist Geographer, I study systems and reasoning within them – So I am expert at thinking a certain way. Not sure about physics, but maybe it is similar based on Jarvis’ comment?

    Also, agree: that slingshot game… Much harder than it looked :)

  4. badrescher says:

    The 10,000 hour thing is not a ‘rule’, but a guideline. Of course every complex issue that is quantified in this way is also simplified. Simplifying can be bad, but in this case the danger in qualifying it is that everyone thinks that they and their area of expertise falls into the ‘exception’ category. My point was to give people at least a little bit of info to help them determine how much weight to give an individual’s opinion.

    I love this post. K-12 teachers are required to demonstrate that they continue to develop professionally and any scientist who falls behind will find their work rejected by journals. Sometimes a quick refresher is enough after a break and sometimes the field has changed enough to require a significant investment.

    But you’ll always know a damned sight more than I (or anyone I know) about sheep. What’s more, I am confident that if you didn’t know, or were not sure about, the answer to a question, you’d say so.

  5. Wayne Thom says:

    Dear Daniel,
    How wonderful to discover your smiling face in my morning newspaper. To learn that you have become a force for good and reason in the world is beyond delightful. It’s a privilege to have known you.

    All the best,
    (formerly Mr. Thom)

    • High praise from a favorite teacher! It’s a very great pleasure to see you pop up on here.

      I think of skepticism as an endurance-based, educational public service, so I look to the good example of my public school teachers quite often for inspiration. You guys were the real deal; we popularizers are dilettantes.