Thursday, May 24, 2012

That's Impossible

Over the past week or so, Iris and I have spent lots of time with experts.

In my experience, there are two types of expert, the type who do something with great skill and the type who know a lot about something. For example, in music both exceptional players and critics may be deemed to be expert. You rarely hear the first type (the player) using the word to describe himself; however, you often hear it from the second type.

It is with the second type of expert that Iris and I spent more than adequate time over the past week.

One of the reasons I found the time spent more than adequate is that these experts demonstrated a propensity to employ the phrases "that's impossible" and "how do you know that?" with a heightened intonation of incredulity.  Further, as our conversations proceeded, each expert would use these phrases with increasing frequency.

I found the phrases a bit challenging, not in that they called into question my own beliefs, but in that I often find it difficult to explain the obvious. To be fair to the experts, most of the times they said something was impossible, I had indeed not yet done it. Most of the times they asked how I knew something, I couldn't tell them that I'd conducted a specific experiment to show it. And although there were certainly cases where I'd done and could demonstrate the impossible or unknowable, the more interesting cases were the ones where I couldn't (at least not on the spot).

These were interesting to me because without failure the experts would take the absence of proof that one could do or know something to be the equivalent of proof that one could not.  It took me a bit to catch on to the game they played, but once I did, I started turning the questions around asking, "How do know it's impossible?" or "How do you know it's not that?"

I'd explain that I don't have to have played a specific song to know that I could play it. I've played enough other songs to know I could play one I haven't. I don't have to have walked a specific path to know that I could walk it... Don't have to have made a specific dish to know I could prepare it... and so on.

Some experts would respond with a litany of all the cases where people had attempted thus and such and failed. Others would respond indignantly touting their credentials and expertise. Some would laugh dismissively.  Every once in a while one would say, "Well... you're right. I don't know it's impossible; I just know that I don't know how to do it."

With the few who responded in this way, the nature of the conversation changed from dialog and debate to joint exploration. It was delightful.

As a rule of thumb (at least for me), impossible almost always means "I don't know how." "How do you know that?" means "I can't see how you got from point A to point B."  The problem with being an expert (of the accumulated-knowledge type) is that to not know is to be at fault.  You're an expert; you're supposed to know.

However, embracing not-knowing is the cornerstone of learning and asserting a belief that you can't yet prove is the basis of all scientific endeavor.

Ahh... experts.

Where's your expertise? What do you dismiss as impossible or unknowable? Are you easily dismissed because you're not an expert?

Happy Thursday,


  1. I've taken to mentally prefixing/appending "in my opinion" or "as far as I know" to ANYTHING anybody says. For instance (in today's news):
    - Currently, *as far as we know*, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, which steadily robs patients of their memory, followed by full-blown dementia.
    - *In my opinion*, The comparatively laissez-faire attitude of African parents produces admirable resilience among their children.


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