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Professional Fallibility and the Glut of Information

he sheer quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially. So immense is it that no one person can acquire anything but a tiny and diminishing percentage of it. To add to our burden, much of the information generated is disseminated with a "spin," an agenda, a vested interest defining and interpreting it. Much information comes to us from professionals, persons officially certified as possessors of important knowledge. Yet the quality of what we are offered is very uneven. Our welfare depends upon our ability to do a good job assessing it. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, economists, media pundits, and many, many others tell us what we should and should not do, what is required for, and what will threaten, our welfare.

In this chapter, we suggest some ways to gain critical leverage on the information and advice given to us by professionals and by the disciplines that underlie professional learning and practice. We shall build on the insights of previous chapters. We shall therefore assume that you are now keenly aware that all humans are fallible, in predictable ways:

  • Subject to a tendency to egocentric thinking which leads a person to assume that his concerns are more important than those of others;

  • Subject to a tendency to sociocentric thinking which leads a person to assume that the groups to which he belongs are superior to others;

  • Subject to a tendency to self-deception which leads a person to twist the facts to achieve immediate self-justification (at the expense of an honest owning of mistakes and mis-deeds);

  • Subject to a lack of intellectual "virtues" which leads a person to blind himself to the extent of his ignorance, his inconsistencies, his failure to enter sympathetically into views that disagree with his own, his tendency to avoid complexity, and his fear of disagreeing with members of groups whose approval he seeks;

  • Subject to a tendency to violate basic intellectual standards which leads a person to think in ways that are often unclear, inaccurate, imprecise, irrelevant, superficial, narrow-minded, illogical, and unfair;

  • Subject to the influence of vested interest which leads a person to focus on power, money, and prestige (usually at the expense of the rights or well being of others).

These facts alone should make us wary of the pronouncements of any human being, "professional" or otherwise. Yet we need to be more than wary. We must know where to look for probable weaknesses and how to recognize likely strengths.

All information is not created equal. All professions are not on the same level of credibility. We should distinguish between professionals of different types and learn when it makes the best sense to question them. We should understand the academic disciplines that underlie the professions and the manner in which they are taught and learned. The first half of the chapter will deal with a sample analysis of some of the professions, most notably those of engineering and medicine. The second half of the chapter will deal with the disciplines that underlie the professions and the manner in which they are represented, taught, and learned. We shall then focus on the gap between the manner in which disciplines represent themselves to the public (in order to gain funding in the academic world) and the actual consequences of the manner in which they are taught and learned.

Let us begin with the contrast between the ideal of professional knowledge and the manner in which professional thinking is applied in the real world.

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