It’s the fallacy of thinking that, just cos you’re good at something, that everyone should be good at it, and if they’re not, they’re just being stubborn and doing it badly on purpose.
I thought about this when reading this line from Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker:
[Henry Louis] Gates is one of the few academic historians who do not disdain the methods of the journalist . . .
Gopnik’s article is fascinating, and I have no doubt that Gates’s writing is both scholarly and readable.
My problem is with Gopnik’s use of the word “disdain.” The implication seems to be that other historians could write like journalists if they felt like it, but they just disdain to do so, maybe because they think it would be beneath their dignity, or maybe because of the unwritten rules of the academic profession.
The thing that Gopnik doesn’t get, I think, is that it’s hard to write well. Most historians can’t write like A. J. P. Taylor or Henry Louis Gates. Sure, maybe they could approach that level if they were to work hard at it, but it would take a lot of work, a lot of practice, and it’s not clear this would be the best use of their time and effort.
For a journalist to say that most academics “disdain the methods of the journalist” would be like me saying that most journalists “disdain the methods of the statistician.” OK, maybe some journalists actively disdain quantitative thinking—the names David Brooks and Gregg Easterbrook come to mind—but mostly I think it’s the same old story: math is hard, statistics is hard, these dudes are doing their best but sometimes their best isn’t good enough, etc. “Disdain” has nothing to do with it. To not choose to invest years of effort into a difficult skill that others can do better, to trust in the division of labor and do your best at what you’re best at . . . that can be a perfectly reasonable decision. If an academic historian does careful archival work and writes it up in hard-to-read prose—not on purpose but just cos hard-to-read prose is what he or she knows how to write—that can be fine. The idea would be that a journalist could write it up later for others. No disdaining. Division of labor, that’s all. Not everyone on the court has to be a two-way player.
I had a similar reaction a few years ago to Steven Pinker’s claim that academics often write so badly because “their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation—an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild. Many of the hallmarks of academese are symptoms of this agonizing selfconsciousness . . .” I replied that I think writing is just not so easy, and our discussion continued here.
Anyway, here’s the question. This fallacy, of thinking that when people can’t do what you can do, that they’re just being stubborn . . . is there a name for it? The Expertise Fallacy??
Give this one a good name, and we can add it to the lexicon.