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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.