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

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.