Socrates and the Smartest Guys in the Room

Sometimes it seems like we, the public, are the long-suffering spouse whose partner is sitting in a bar somewhere telling friends that we just don’t understand how complex life is and what they have to deal with every day. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we can’t. And maybe they should try opening up to us a bit more and let us give it a try.

It’s argued that modern crime is too complex for a jury to understand, requiring consideration by experts. We’re told that modern finance is too complex for even experts to understand, requiring that people with specialized knowledge be retained at huge cost. And that even decisions about science and technology policy should be left to the experts.

These are the challenges transparency and encouraging participation face. If we open our data to those who don’t have the requisite expertise, how will they avoid misinterpreting it? It’s almost as if we would rather not explain our secrets to those who don’t already share our faith.

I can still recall the discomfort some of my colleagues felt at the fact that our governmental manuals, like the CFR and the FAM were available to anyone online. It meant that the public had the same information we had and could more effectively challenge our interpretation. But it also meant that we could more effectively explain the bases for our decisions, if we chose to do so, because we could draw on the same references — whereas before our internal policies were a mystery to most. I remember at one post, our information to the public began with words something like “the process is very complex…” essentially indicating that it was unnecessary for us to try to explain it. When we did want to have the public better understand our processes, the first thing we did was change those words to read “the process is fairly straightforward…”

Socrates figured that he was a simple man who had no special knowledge, yet he had been told by the Oracle at Delphi that there was no one wiser than him. He couldn’t believe this and set about interviewing the best and the brightest in his society, and determined that they were normal people too — which deflated a few egos. No one had ever questioned them. They were the leaders and they were wise.

As we move towards increased transparency and participation, we need to be prepared to explain what we do and put things into context. We will be challenged and we will be misunderstood. But if we’re able to understand what we’re doing, chances are that others can to.

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Allen Sheaprd

Great blog. We are capable of understanding. We are using the same brain, the same wetware and same mark 1 eyeballs as our founding fathers and Socrates.
So is the next generation who are called “internet natives” for they grew up on the 21st century internet.
We all have the same brain so we can at a certian level understand.
Granted, the experts have alot of knowledge and experiance I never will. That is ok. They earned it.

However the experts should be smart enough to explain their ideas to us. If not, how will they get informed consent? Without our understanding there is no consent and they are not following the will of the people – IMO.

Andre Goodfriend

Thanks Allen,

This sense that complex things can only be understood by experts is also exemplified in the adage “Never show a fool unfinished work.” It’s that assumption that showing others your working premises and data will only lead to uninformed and ill-founded criticism by a world that just doesn’t understand.

When combined with the counter-current, that if you show your unfinished work and data to those who are as competent as you or even smarter, they’ll just steal your work and take the credit.

The two together are immense obstacles to both external and internal transparency. More enduring than the formidable silons of Battlestar Galactica are the information silos of bureaucracy.