Who Are You to ____?
Rejecting Appeals to Authority
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic pushes back on the idea that you have to have a certain credential or education to have an informed opinion on a topic. We’ve discussed the strength of the Polymath before and this addresses one of the biggest frustrations of having that broad range of knowledge, weaving it together into new insights, and then being challenged for having an opinion at all. We’ll explore how it is really just a logical fallacy and then go into a bit of my own background and how I weave that together into my Polymathic aspirations.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been challenged as to why I can or should voice an opinion on a topic. The intent is to shut down the argument through a logical fallacy known as a Genetic Fallacy and yet it’s that plus a bit of a reverse Appeal to Authority by basically saying you aren’t an authority.
Yet these are logical fallacies for a reason; you don’t have to be an expert to have well-formed thoughts or informed opinions on a topic. We’ve also seen that the experts aren’t always right and often suffer the Dunning-Kruger effect even more than anyone else!
In fact, we’ve explored previously how anyone can Critically Think about a variety of topics through the skills of knowledge gathering, application of logic, and mindful, curious critique. This can be learned and refined through exposure, experience, and discipline to where they become an underpinning of Systems Thinking.
There is literally nothing stopping anyone from having an informed position on any topic and often it’s the outsider who has the most unique insight and can bring the most value to a conversation often locked in an echo chamber.
I think it’s important to show how much impact a diversity of background has in allowing a person to think differently. To be completely honest, how much would you trust someone who doesn’t have a broad experience set to compare and contrast ideas against? Do we really want to treat the myopic expert with uncontested authority?
To both highlight the power of broad experience as well as introduce myself to you a little better, I’ll try to summarize my background of work experience quickly and show how it ties together.
Lawn care (starting in 7th grade)
Full-time summer carpentry for two summers
Ski hill rental shop
State Park Ranger
College while studying Business, Management Information Systems
Ski hill lift operator and groomer
Lumber Yard (both yard and inside sales)
Restaurant waiter (3 summers)
Also, a dishwasher to get one of those waiting jobs
Dormitory Resident Assistant (RA)
Lawn care for the elderly
Handyman/housekeeping at a resort lodge/hotel
Army Officer - Field Artillery
Fire Support Officer
Howitzer Platoon Leader
Police Transition Team
R&D Program Manager
Six Sigma Expert across the business
Systems Engineering Manager (Operations Research) - Advanced Technologies
Cyber Research and Development Program Manager
Advanced Technologies Systems Analyst (Operations Research)
Autonomous Systems Lead
Chainalysis (Blockchain Tech Startup)
Software Engineering Manager
What’s interesting is that my professional career has become more focused with each new role and each execution has become more specific, but they still leverage a very broad background and exposure to a vast array of domains and disciplines.
I didn’t really understand this importance until my Master’s program at Johns Hopkins University where I was the only student without an engineering degree. I expected to get my butt kicked but ended up graduating at the top of my class and with honors. What I realized is that everything I’d been doing up till then had built out a natural systems thinking mindset.
Carpentry is a systems-building problem
Field Artillery is a combat systems problem in depth and time
Program management is a systems integration problem
Six Sigma is a systems solutioning model
Operations Research is a systems analysis discipline
By the time I got into my Systems Engineering course work, I’d been doing systems analysis and design since high school. The material came easily to me and I ended up having to put in half the effort of almost anyone else. Quite literally, my team’s final project put in half the effort of any other team and got the same grade. (Systems Engineer is, after all, the science of good enough)
What’s even more interesting is that due to this broad exposure, I didn’t specialize in any one topic, and that breadth of exposure opened up so many more opportunities. Since I’m not tied to any one domain or discipline, I’m free to look at problems that even those experiences don’t directly relate to and see what my knowledge and background can bring to bear on new topics.
The Polymath Applied
This position is both a boon and a bane because I can bring insights from other domains but there is always the hurdle of gatekeeping, especially if the insight challenges the current paradigms or, specifically, a political ideology. What’s most interesting is that this gatekeeping rarely comes from the actual experts but from those with not only limited expertise in the topic on hand but have a very focused and specialized background in general. They just can’t fathom how to tie things together between silos.
So how can I speak on climate change? - Because I know modeling and simulations of complex systems, how to read scientific papers, and I recognize when assumptions and heuristics don’t scale beyond a narrow scope of application. This last part is what makes so many scientific studies interesting but incomplete and, in context, inaccurate. Anyone trying to claim the climate (or anything really) is a static system with one variable is going to be wrong.
How can I speak on COVID? - Because our COVID response wasn’t about virology, it was about psychology. The virology science was actually super simple and didn’t take more than two days of research to find the patterns in the system and derive a workable model. Then, realizing that we were dealing with psychology, I could easily pivot and understand and articulate the nuances of how masks do work, but how it was psychology resulting in poor outcomes.
What about politics? - Because I don’t look for the talking points, I look for the systems. It’s the larger view I captured in Quantum Superposition and Politics where I explain that it’s not binary and I break down the nuance of how I’m an Anarchist, Socialist, Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian at different points in that system.
The point here is that with an expanded range of capabilities, you can tie together a broad portfolio of skills in true Polymathic fashion. It means that you can build a workable foundation and know explicitly where you need to fill in the gaps to flesh out a topic. It’s insatiable curiosity, humility to accept there’s more to know, and intentionally reframing problems to find out, not only their uniqueness but also their commonality.
I’ll reiterate here. It’s insatiable curiosity AND humility to accept there’s more to know. We can come up with a lot of workable models but the most important part is to also strive to not let them become static or pedantic. We might not always be right but it’s the dialog, not the gatekeeping, that allows everyone to learn more!
What does this mean for you?
I share this to show that you can stretch your brain as well. You can apply the Systems Thinking philosophies, you can Critically Think, and you can avoid the Cognitive Biases that plague so many experts.
This becomes a superpower where you aren’t burdened by the paradigms of siloed expertise that Thomas Kuhn talked about in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It also means you can break the quandary that Max Planck described as “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” In fact, when you stop demanding that only experts have a voice on a topic, you find that it’s more often the non-experts who move science forward as they don’t have a paradigm to protect.
A word of caution though: It is a lot easier to not do this and stay in a safe place, trusting others to hopefully do what is right. You won’t be challenged, you won’t rock the boat, and you won’t be asked “Who are you to ___? Yet when I look back, I love the ability to think freely, explore passionately, and Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn constantly.
Special add here that hit too late to get in is this gem fromwriting as he shared some tips in the Substack Writer’s Office Hours:
Write what you want to learn! Explore, engage, study, research, form opinions, challenge opinions, stretch and engage that beautiful brain of yours!
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