On Specialist Knowledge

Some years ago, a priest who was teaching a class I was auditing sat down with me to teach me how to chant a collect. (A collect — accent on the first syllable because it is a noun — is a prayer said by an officiant on a specific occasion to “collect” the prayerful intentions of the whole gathering. It has three main parts: it names God in a specific way, asks for a blessing in keeping with that name, and finishes with a doxology. I digress, but this will be useful in a moment.) The lesson didn’t last very long, because she discovered that I already knew where to put which cantilations. “It’s a grammar,” I said.

But here’s the thing. I knew how to chant a collect because I had been listening to priests who knew what they were doing chant collects year in and year out till I picked up the grammar by instinct. I still don’t know what that grammar is, diagramatically. I have the knowledge-by-acquaintance of how to chant a collect; I don’t have the specialist knowledge of how these cantilation structures work.

In my aside above about the definition of a collect, I mentioned the emphasis on the first syllable “because it is a noun.” Until someone on social media mentioned this rule in passing, it hadn’t occurred to me to notice that in English nouns that double as verbs, the accent goes on the first syllable for the noun form and the second syllable for the verb form — so a collect is a prayer that collects; a record is what results when you record something, and so on. Do we need to know this information? No, but somebody should know it. That context is meaningful, and may at times be crucial.

On the other hand, there was the time when I was six and an instructor was trying to teach me how to ski down a slope. “Put your weight on one foot,” she said, and I tried to put one ski on top of the other. “No, it’s more like leaning,” she corrected, and I almost fell over. It wasn’t till a few weeks later, when I was playing and thinking about something completely different, that her meaning clicked and I said, “Ohhhh!” I didn’t have the experiential knowledge needed to grasp the special skill she was teaching me. I didn’t yet have the muscle memory of purposely shifting all my weight to one hip, that poised flex of the bearing knee, that sweet spot of placement for my center of gravity (what’s that?).

Many times, we pick up knowledge by experience and we don’t know what we know until we are presented with specialist knowledge. We have to make a successful handshake for the two knowledges to integrate, and sometimes that’s a real challenge.

Such a challenge came up for me last night when Adam Neely’s latest video dropped. I’ll wait here while you watch it. It’s worth all 27 minutes.

Yes, it’s about Céline Dion; yes, it’s about a power ballad I always thought cheesy — though thanks to Adam Neely I am now aware that it’s a deliberate quotation of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. So that’s no wonder because, Unpopular Opinion time, I think Rachmaninoff and a lot of the other Later Romantics are cloyingly overwrought. But that doesn’t matter, because Adam Neely’s actual topic is fascinating: it’s an exploded diagram of the aural and emotional effects of a key change on a sustained note.

As someone who plays music as a craft but is not a practitioner of it as an art, I can appreciate the specialist knowledge Neely brings here, and I can even bring to bear my own experience of feeling myself in or out of tune with the ensemble when playing the flute, or the experience of blending when using my voice (I’m told I blend well, but I don’t get much of a chance to practice these days). I have the ghostly memory of what it means to sustain a note and feel the context change around it so completely that I have to hold up against a chill. I know what it’s like to try and sing without succumbing to the emotional power of the music. But even with all that experience, I still had to reverse the video three or four times in places and go, “Okay, Adam, run that by me again.”

It gives me a renewed appreciation for specialist knowledge.

But while it’s true that we don’t know what we know, we also don’t know what we don’t know. This is the basis of what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is how you get assholes convinced they are experts pontificating about shit they clearly know very little about. A friend recently sent me this article about the interpersonal pitfalls of encountering such people when you have specialist knowledge. When people experience a missed handshake between their experience and specialist information, it can read to their brains like an actual threat. The experience of being wrong can be felt as a kind of death, and the person inflicting that experience becomes a killer.

I don’t have to elaborate, do I, about how we’re seeing this aggression toward “experts” in the public square, to the point where “science” itself is a loaded catchall term for any situation in which we don’t put up with someone talking out of their ass? Okay. Let’s skip to what I said to my friend M who sent me that article.

What I said was, “I think women experts actually go through those stages [that Venkatesh Rao talks about] in reverse. We doubt ourselves; then we try to help; then we are reduced to manipulating people; then we wash our hands of it.” Who the expert is makes a vast amount of difference to the level of threat people feel when they encounter that uncanny valley between what they know and what they don’t know. I don’t think it’s an accident that expertise itself is being disparaged at a time when women and minorities are completing post-secondary educations at unprecedented levels.

Worse, post-secondary education has become inextricably tied up with class, so that we are all too likely to see someone with a college degree as someone who was able to complete a class gatekeeping ritual where others could not. The degree, and the jargon they pick up getting it, has no other meaning than that.

Yet this can’t be entirely true, or else Adam Neely wouldn’t have thousands of people watching (and reversing to rewatch) his explanations of music theory every time he drops a new video. It helps that Neely’s not threatening: he’s a cute young white guy with a Baptist haircut (an aesthetic I happen to like, so I’m not disparaging him here), operating on a social media platform. He’s clearly leaning in to all these advantages for his living; and why not, if it results in thousands of folks having fun while learning about music theory?

Step one, getting the expertise, is difficult enough. Step two, making use of it for the public good, is often dependent on whether we are the kind of person others want to recognize as an expert, and is therefore not necessarily within our control. But when we succeed, it’s nearly always because of a personal encounter: a priest teaching a theology student, or a ski instructor helping a six-year-old negotiate a slope. Even a one-way encounter on social media is still a place where one person (me) on a quiet Friday night during a pandemic can navigate that uncanny valley between what she knows and what she can’t yet grasp.

I don’t think that if we are an expert in something that it obliges us to try to reduce people’s threat level in any given encounter. But it seems to me that a reduced threat level is part of the exploded diagram of a successful encounter between someone’s experience and specialist knowledge, whether that’s within our reach or not. And I don’t blame people for washing their hands of some folks for whom, clearly, the least scintilla of acknowledgment is a crucifixion. Some of these folks are just going to have to go through some things.

I guess my takeaway this morning is that we need specialist knowledge, and we need people who are practitioners of it, and we need those handshake moments without which we cannot integrate our lives as we’ve lived them so far with what comes next. It’s an uncanny valley, and the tone colors are amazing. Meet me here.