I Wasn’t There, But Let Me Tell You Exactly What Happened

In response to my lament to my lament regarding how some people think watching movies makes them an expert in a public policy area, Kevin Drum sees a broader problem in how people judge what they do and don’t know:

Everyone with the manual dexterity to hoist a beer can regale you with confident answers to all the ills of society, while in the very next breath insisting that you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to subject X. That’s a lot more complicated than you think.

Subject X, of course, is something they happen to know a lot about, probably because they work in the field. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that they’ve learned to be cautious about the one field they know the most about doesn’t stop them from assuming that every other field is pretty simple and tractable.

It would be absurd to deny this sad phenomenon. Kevin is noting how possession of deep knowledge in some areas doesn’t generalize into an assumption that there is also relevant deep knowledge in areas in which we are not specialists. During some of the hottest cultural debates of recent years, I have been thinking about this same lack of generalization from the other direction: Why don’t we assume we are ignorant in unfamiliar areas when we have the experience of ignorance in familiar ones? I am thinking in particular of our quotidian experience of misunderstanding or misremembering our interactions with other people.

In interactions in which we are personally involved, we often do not fully understand what is going on. We for example might walk away from a conversation with a loved one or colleague wondering “How did they end up as an argument?” or “What was that conversation really about?”. We also of course forget what happened in our personal interactions, even highly significant ones. Separate two spouses and ask for their accounts of a highly significant moment in their shared life (e.g., What was their first date like? What happened on the day their first child was born?) and you will invariably find disagreements about important details.

When we observe but are not part of an interaction, our understanding at the time and our memory later are even worse. The engaging book Wittgenstein’s Poker for example revealed that the Cambridge University denizens who observed a legendary 10 minute dust up between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper could not remotely agree later on what had transpired — up to and including whether a threat of physical violence was made.

We understand and remember our own interactions poorly. We are even worse when we are one step away, witnessing other people’s interactions. So far, so banal, but riddle me this: Why are so many people so regularly consumed in debate about what really happened in interactions of which they were not a part and did not witness? Google on any hotly debated pairing — Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, to name only three — and you will find myriad accounts confidently describing exactly what did or did not happen between them.

Our knowledge of interactions that we learn of third, fourth, or fifth-hand is inherently inferior to our knowledge of interactions which we personally witness or experience directly. But the humbling experience of bumbling through and mis-recalling our own lives never lessens some people’s claims of omniscience about the lives of people they’ve never met.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.