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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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