Better Questions and Al Yagoda

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has become popularized in recent days. Unfortunately it sometimes gets reimagined as “Stupid people often think they are smarter than they really are.” Of course, that is not the issue. It is that people tend not to be self-aware of their own incompetence in a subject. People who are very ignorant in a topic often feel that they are quite knowledgeable in the topic. This is hardly surprising, since it is a truism that…

“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”

This reminds me of a satirical post in the “Babylon Bee.” The title was, “Scholars Now Believe Job’s Friends Were First-Year Seminary Students.” Since the story was certainly used in the training of young men in rabbinical schools for millennia, I can’t help but wonder if it is more truth than satire (“Not the Onion”-worthy).

“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

— Thomas Sowell

Perhaps a bit more surprising is that people who are genuinely experts in a topic often feel that they are more ignorant than they really are. The more one studies a subject the more one understands how vast it is. Although experts tend to be more realistic than novices, one may become so focused on the vast vistas of the unknown that one may lose sight of the level of competency that one has achieved. When I was in first year college for mechanical engineering, a question had come up in mathematics that was new to me. I decided to ask my dad. He told me that he had no idea what the answer was. I was shocked. My father had a bachelors degree in mathematics (magna cum laude), had been “human computer” (back when those were the only computers that existed) in missile design and then a test engineer at a high-performance bearing company. As I went on in my education, I gained a better understanding of how vast mathematics. It is so vast that no one embraces all of it with any level of competence. Expertise narrows. When young, my dad was an expert in college-level mathematics… as well as mental math. When older, his expertise became Weibull distributions and failure analysis (small but important parts of the vast, infinite, plane that is mathematics).

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

–Charles Darwin

So:

  • Incompetent people in an area tend to think that they much more competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think they are somewhat less competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think that they are more competent than they really are in areas that they lack expertise.

It could be suggested that the first point on the list is unnecessary. Pretty much all of us are experts in something, and every single person on earth who is an expert in something is going to be incompetent in a vast range of things. So you get people like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about philosophy with great confidence but without competence. I shouldn’t pick on him alone. I find people talking about climate change with great confidence (actually on both sides of the issue) but with know training in the matter. I have seen Nobel prize winners talk with great confidence on topics that they have little expertise in.

In fact, we all do it. We are all rather incompetent in most ways…. but we really don’t want to go around and sound ignorant. We all want to appear competent and that we know exactly what needs to be done. I teach Interreligious Dialogue and I have my students write up case studies of themselves in interreligious dialogue. So many are uncomfortable because they are afraid of being asked something that they don’t know the answer to. They are afraid of that “Gotcha!!” moment where they feel stupid. (Strangely, in most cases, the person they were talking to probably would have respected them more if they simply said, “Wow, that is a great question. I need to research that. Or maybe we can figure it out together.”) We want to be the Gotcha!! guy like Ben Shapiro focused more on belittling the other than on seeking truth.

We all want to be Al Yagoda.

Who is Al Yagoda? One of my bosses back when I was a mechanical design engineer told me to avoid Al Yagoda. When we have a question, don’t listen to people that answer with, “Al Yagoda do is….. ” or “All you need is…”

Answers are rarely that easy. We rarely know the answer. I tell my seminary students to embrace the sentence, “I don’t know.” It is a good sentence because it is commonly true. It is also often true when you think it is not true (As the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests).

This does not mean that one must end with “I don’t know.” I don’t know is a starting place, not an endpoint. In the classes I teach, someone asks a good question. I often will say, “I don’t know… but here are some thoughts I have on this.’ Or maybe, “I don’t know… but maybe someone else here knows.”

Sometimes, I don’t know is followed by a strategy to find out. I remember as an engineer, a friend of mine was making an electronic cabinet and wasn’t sure what thickness of sheet metal he should use. He asked me what I thought would work. I said, quite correctly, “I don’t know.’ However, I then followed with, “I think I know how we can find out.” I took him downstairs to the testing department where there were a number of electronic racks. I pointed to three of them and told him to sit on them and push on them. He did. I told him the thicknesses of sheet metal used for each. Based on that he had a good idea what to use. He discovered the truth, and did so in a way that was more visceral. Me telling him what I thought was the best thickness may or may not have been right… but it certainly would NOT be the best way to inform him.

Being an expert in a field is often not about having better answers, but having better questions. I think this is especially true in missions and in theology. I like to tell my students that they should not expect that I have the best answers. I can be wrong. I am wrong every day. I have met people who think that they are experts and so should be believed. I don’t think anyone living today is such an expert in a subject that they have earned the right to be unquestionably believed. But PERHAPS they should be taken seriously.

That is what I tell my students. They can disagree with me… and they may be right in doing so. Based on my training and experience, I don’t expect to be believed… but I DO expect to have my thoughts taken seriously. If all I do as a seminary professor is indoctrinate them to parrot my beliefs, I have done little, if any, good.

But if I can train up people to gain some sense of the vastness of theology and missions, have the self-awareness to recognize their own expertise AND ignorance, and help them to ask better questions, I have accomplished something wonderful.

That is something that I am pretty sure that I know.

Ministerial Recovery

We all fail sometimes. Sometimes the failure is minor… sometimes it can be spectacular. Sometimes one has control over the situation of the failure, and sometimes not.

Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failures are great opportunities to grow. But not all failures are equal to each other. Consider three forms of failure.

  1.  Failure of Vision. A minister lacks visiona clear vision or perhaps the minister’s vision proves to be leading in the wrong direction.
  2. Failure of Competence.  A minister lacks the skill-set and/or experience for what he/she is doing.
  3. Failure of Trustworthiness. The minister violates trust by cheating, or breaking a promise.

The last one, failure of trustworthiness needs a bit of explanation. After all, to fail in doing what one promises to do is not automatically a trustworthy issue, in my opinion. For me trustworthiness has to do with the martial virtues– Courage (doing what is right despite fear), Duty (doing what is right regardless of preference), and Honor (doing what is right despite lack of oversight). Failure in these virtues is a failure of trustworthiness. These failures are all very different.

What is easiest to personally correct?

Trustworthiness Failure. In theory this can be done quickly with repentance. However, in practice it can take awhile because failure in the area of trustworthiness will continue to be a temptation during stress. Ministry has lots of stresses.

Vision Failure. Nehemiah went from no vision to a very clear vision in four months. Paul and Moses got at least a start of a vision in a very quick event (Damascus Road and Burning Bush), even if they needed new vision adjustments periodically. I believe vision is a human AND divine activity. Ultimately, a lack of vision I believe is a failure on the human side, rather than the divine side. But it is correctable.

Competence Failure. Training, mentoring, and experience can be gained in a few months to a few years.

What is the easiest to recover from?

Vision Failure. People will commonly accept the transition from a muddy vision to a clear vision, or a change of direction, especially if the change can be clearly articulated.

Competence Failure. People generally understand that people start out without skills and knowledge. They may wait awhile for the person to prove himself/herself but another chance will normally be given.

Trustworthiness Failure. Some understand and give another chance and some don’t. We don’t know why John Mark quit on the first missionary journey… but probably an issue of lack of courage or duty. His uncle Barnabas was ready quickly to give him a second chance. Paul, on the other hand took a few years to warm up to him. Some will never forget a failure of trustworthiness.

What do we tend to emphasize?

Competence.  Preparation for ministry often focuses on learning skills and doctrine.

Depends. Some focus more on morals or trustworthiness, while others more on calling/vision. Either way, they are often given less priority than ministerial competence.

What failure is most risky?

Trustworthiness Failure.  Regardless of whether one is in charge or a worker bee, a failure in this area can sour future opportunities for ministry (especially if due to failure in terms of honor).

The Others. One can learn as a mentee (protege or apprentice) without a lot of risk. Additionally, in that role, one doesn’t really need to have a clear vision. One can learn while working helping another’s vision. These are bigger issues if the person is a leader.