Jeremy Côté

More Than Meets The Eye

Speak with any master, they can tell you a ton about their craft. They are capable of going into incredible depth about details that you did not even know existed. They have so much experience that these details jump out to them and are obvious.

However, if you then ask them about a topic unrelated to their craft, chances are their knowledge will be average. In particular, they might start generalizing about certain aspects of this topic. If this topic happens to be something you care about, you get to experience the strange situation in which a master at a different craft lacks the basic knowledge of your craft.

This happens all the time, most notably when a famous person makes a comment about a field they know nothing about. Then, full of people will jump up in anger and say how this famous person is stupid.

The truth, of course, is that the person isn’t stupid (at least, most of the time). Rather, they lack the knowledge to dig deeper into a particular topic. Because of this, the topic looks like one homogeneous blob, instead of a bunch of interconnected ones. It’s kind of like looking at a book from a hundred meters away. Unless the book is very big, you won’t be able to resolve the details. It will just look like a rectangular object. Get closer though, and you will be able to read the words.

This is the idea of resolution. How well can you distinguish two or more objects when they are close together? Better resolution means you can make out the two separate objects when someone else cannot.

There’s an analog to this in the space of ideas. When we are beginners, an idea might look like a single thing. We then start studying it, only to find that what looked like one thing was in fact composed of many smaller bits. These are subtle aspects of the topic, but they can be separated with the appropriate knowledge. We then dig deeper to find that each of those ideas is built from yet smaller ideas. And on and on it goes.

The lesson is that there is more than meets the eye at first glance. A topic might seem simple to grasp, but often that is because we lack knowledge of the subject. When armed with that knowledge, we see that the topic was more complex than it first appeared. As long as we get to this point, we are humbled and start to appreciate the complexity of ideas.

What is dangerous is when we refuse to dig deeper and still make judgements about a topic. Then, we are being willfully ignorant. If there are deeper ideas to understand and you are too lazy to do the work of finding them, you are not someone I want to work with. This might be harsh, but it is true.

That being said, it is important to remember that we all have these areas where our knowledge is lacking. No one has in-depth knowledge of physics, mathematics, philosophy, biology, computer science, geology, psychology, history, linguistics, and art. Even in that list, I’m exposing my lack of knowledge by including some subjects and not others. We don’t have knowledge of everything, and that is not a bad thing. It is okay to have specialized knowledge. However, it means we have to take as much care with other subjects as we do with our own. This means avoiding generalizations and quick opinions about matters we know nothing about.

Again, I don’t want this to sound like we should not ever stray outside our field. That is not what I want. Furthermore, it is sometimes a good thing to propose an idea without the full baggage that comes with an in-depth knowledge of a subject. All we have to keep in mind is that there is a good chance our idea is wrong, simply because we don’t have that extra knowledge.

My hope is that we stay humble and curious when thinking about fields other than our own. It is great to go exploring, but we need to remember that we are not experts in this new territory. As such, it might make sense to heed the warnings of experts.

There is always more than meets the eye. You can view this as an admonition to tread carefully, or you can think of it as a wonderful opportunity to learn. Your choice.