Confidence and competence

by Radio Somewhere

On her recent visit from England, my mother introduced me to Dr. Karl, “the answer waiting for a question” — or something like that. She listens to him on BBC Radio 5 in the middle of the night, and he is on the air all over the place in Australia. But I just went to iTunes and looked for podcasts. Sleek Geeks seems to be popular, but I have been listening to
Dr. Karl’s Blogcast, because the episodes are around 10-12 minutes long — which is a nice length for bus riding.

This evening, I just enjoyed an episode title Confidence and Incompetence. It seems that there is an inverse association between the two — that ignorance fuels confidence while knowledge drives doubt. This hardly surprised me. I have a PhD — and there’s not much I feel I would stake my shirt on — or even a cup of coffee.

In the mid-1990s, as I prepared for my comprehensive exam, I must have read every paper, monograph and text book about El Nino; and about the microclimates of urban areas; and about how mountain ranges affect climate; and about the all techniques by which paleo-scientists reconstruct climate records going back thousands of years — to name but a few topics I was supposed to know everything about. I really thought the stuff would be burned on my brain FOR EVER! But it’s amazing how we can forget stuff when something else competes for our brain’s attention — like figuring out Seattle’s public transportation system.

Anyway, I WAS a very solid climate scientist at one time; and it all comes back to me very readily once I pick up a text; but I have never felt confident enough in my expertise to present myself as an authority on the subject. Good thing I don’t have to now!!

I know quite a lot about statistics too; but I can have some serious anxiety when I crunch numbers in a spreadsheet — worrying if my approach is valid for the problem.

I often joke that I would have been smarter if I had avoided graduate school altogether — and sometimes I even believe it.

On my fancy PhD diploma appear the words “and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto” — and I have wondered what those might be.

I think one of those privileges might be the comfort in admitting you don’t know something — having attempted to know everything about even just a little corner of the universe — and having realized what a tall order that is.

Here is something I WILL hang my hat on though: beyond the limit of what the Hubble telescope can see — I think there is just more universe.