How knowledge makes you stupid

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

When you’re trying to express a really interesting idea you've just had, perhaps a way to solve all war, or what if this universe, is like, an atom inside another universe? -  there’s nothing more annoying than coming across an expert in the field. Their voice turns calm, authoritative, slightly nasal, and they immediately dismiss your thought. "Oh that's blablabla-ism", they say or "I've watched Men in Black too". 

But then it’s always impossible to listen to other people when you've studied the subject they're talking about. George Eliot puts it best in Middlemarch when she describes conversations between a young woman and her learned husband, Mr Casaubon: “If she spoke with any keenness of interest to Mr Casaubon, he heard her with an air of patience . . . and sometimes mentioned curtly what ancient sects or personages had held similar ideas, as if there were too much of that sort in stock already; at other times he would inform her that she was mistaken, and reassert what her remark had questioned.”

Shock of the new

Mr Casaubon is not an attractive character but his attitude is partly the result of his expertise. He found his way around these subjects years ago, working hard to get patterns from the mess, and the lines have now  hardened, permanently.

It happens to us all though - even taxi drivers, and in their case there's neural evidence. You can track distinctive changes in a cabbie's brain after he gets “The Knowledge” –a working memory of the entire map of London – which expands his hippocampi (spatial areas). But the expertise comes at a cost - he finds it much harder to imagine alternative ways around the city. This was shown up in a fairly recent experiment by the psychologists Katherine Woollett and Eleanor Maguire, who performed memory tests on a group of London taxi drivers and found they struggled to learn new routes in areas they knew well. The researchers suspected that The Knowledge, which had enlarged and spread one section of the hippocampus out into other brain areas, was getting in the way making new memories. Once we make our own maps, it seems, they are strangely inflexible. 

But it's not just spatial knowledge that does this. Accountants find it harder than amateurs to apply new information they have just read to the world of business; expert bridge players are less likely to adapt to new versions of the game. A recent study found that although doctors are more accurate at diagnosis, they are worse than third-year interns at remembering what information it was that they used.

We need experts but there is a trade-off in creative thinking. Little wonder that innovations most often happen at the intersection of two fields of expertise. It’s not due to the combination of knowledge, but to bright people crossing into areas they are not familiar with.

Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.