Sunday, January 6, 2019

Expert/Layman Triage Meta-Fallacy

One of the more insightful Slog regulars couldn't quite distinguish the problem I was trying to highlight in my recent posting "Expert/Layman Triage Fallacy". There was a long comment thread beneath that posting where we both seemed to talk past each other. It's noteworthy that the commenter acknowledges himself to be in a profession prone to this very fallacy.

I showed that discussion to a couple other people in relevant lines of work, and was surprised that they, too, sidestepped my point. It occurred to me that the very same fallacy might be in effect. They even fall into it while reading illustrative anecdotes!

So I mapped it out for one programmer, as follows (you'll want to briefly reread that posting first):
Expert: "A" is useful, but "B" I find completely insufferable...and only I am able to distinguish. Okay....go!

Me: Heartfelt apologies if this is "B", but might this instance be an "A"?

Expert: Yes. Reward.

Me: Heartfelt apologies if this is "B", but might this instance be an "A"?

Expert: Yes. Reward.

Me: Heartfelt apologies if this is "B", but might even this instance be an "A"?

Expert: I punish you for your insufferableness.

Two problems are at work here, but only one is of interest to me:
1. The expert lacks empathy for the position of the non-expert; i.e. his inability to triage.

2. The expert utterly fails to perceive (much less acknowledge) the obvious pattern he's created.

#1 can be attributed to Aspergers or any other reason for failure to empathize with a different perspective. It's not particularly interesting. But #2 is utterly mysterious. And, per above, the strange failure to recognize the pattern holds even while reading anecdotes deliberately highlighting such patterns.

If the expert was aware of the pattern, he'd neutrally, amiably wave off the insufferable result. But there's naked exasperation, regardless of any pre-apologies and disclaimers. That exasperation stems from failure to register an obvious pattern. This obliviousness is a weird, and widespread, cognitive hiccup.

Again, I'm not underscoring the inability of non-experts to triage, or the lack of empathy from experts re: this imbalance. What I'm interested in is the puzzling blindness to a pattern they establish, actively encouraging non-experts to keep blindly presenting, inevitably bringing them withering punishment...even if their presentations are couched in copious apologies and disclaimers hoping to lubricate the process (such efforts do absolutely nothing to mitigate the negative emotional reaction when triage goes the wrong way).

One of my pet peeves is when you run into a store, don’t see what you need (you're certain they don’t carry it), and the owner stops you as you exit, indulgently asking what you were looking for. You say “I’m positive you don’t have it”. He kindly replies “Try me”.

Figuring you're doing him a favor by informing him of unmet consumer demand, you explain what you were seeking, and he drifts back to his previous task (you're no longer a customer, no longer of interest) indifferently sneering that, no, they don’t have that. Like you’re the asshole.

Apparently dismissed, you silently trod out the door.

It’s another triage imbalance, with inappropriate exasperation stemming from blinkered failure to recognize the overarching dialog. It may be the same hiccup.

As with the doctor and the programmer, no quantity of pre-preparation can possibly shake the inevitable behavior. You might try your best (e.g. "I'll tell you, as a favor, what I was looking for. Maybe this will help you make stocking decisions. But bear in mind that I'm taking this time to do you a favor, and might return another time to buy stuff!"). But he'll blink at you in incomprehension, listen as you name the item that both of you know he doesn't carry, and mutter indifferently, ignoring/dismissing you to slink out. He can't see it... any more than the doctor or the programmer can.

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