Faking it

I have a bad habit of trying to fake knowledge when I don’t have it. Whether the topic is world politics or art history or technology or postmodern sociology, I like to pretend that I am knowledgeable on the topic and keep on talking. This habit drives some of my friends crazy, as they feel that it is tantamount to lying. One of them asked me why I do it last month, and while I took a crack at an answer at the time, I’ve been thinking about the question and have some more thoughts.

My friend suggested that my faking was a hubris-laden attempt at being a know-it-all. And I think that’s part of it. Through high school, I could know it all, mastering all subject areas to which I was exposed. I was a champion “Scholastic Bowl” (aka Quiz Bowl) player, answering questions from math to literature to history to biology to physics. Even though it’s patently ridiculous for me to now pretend I can be an expert in all of those disciplines, a bit of me still clings to that youthful self-identity, and keeps on trying anyway.

And yet I’m perfectly happy to concede my own ignorance when confronted with somebody that clearly knows more than I do, so it’s not purely an ego thing where I’m trying to assert dominance. There’s something else going on here. After thinking about it some more, I think it’s actually tied into my identity as a generalist.

Part of being a generalist is understanding different subject areas well enough to effectively communicate with practitioners of that subject. That means not only speaking the right jargon, but understanding the structure of thought associated with that subject, and the mental connections that practitioners make. Without this framework understanding, the generalist will not be able to effectively translate into and out of the subject. For instance, physicists are grounded in a quantitative view of the world, so trying to communicate with them in terms of verbal abstractions will be ineffective; mathematical approaches will work better. On the flip side, biologists are more open to fuzziness, as biological systems are much less predictable and temperamental experimental subjects, so qualitative observations are acceptable.

So when I’m faking knowledge on a topic, I’m practicing my skills as a generalist. Do I understand the structure of the subject well enough to keep up my end of the conversation? It’s a test of my mastery of the jargon, of the basic concepts of the field, of the way in which practitioners communicate. If I am not called out as a fake, I pass the unspoken test, and am accepted as one of the community. If I am called out (as my friend once memorably did in a conversation about art history when she said after five minutes “Wow, you know way less about this than I thought you did!”), I can review what I did wrong which helps me improve my understanding of the communication within that subject.

Understanding the language is also an essential element of being accepted within a community. I’ve written about this before with respect to ultimate frisbee culture, but it’s true of any community. Each community has its own jargon and cultural touchpoints, and knowing what those are is part of what it means to be a community member: Chicago Cubs fans are scarred by references to Bartman, classical music buffs have opinions about Mahler and Mozart, certain nerds talk in Star Wars quotes. My ability to learn the basics of the jargon and the culture of many different communities gives me the freedom to travel between those communities as a social butterfly, cross-pollinating between them.

Faking it is also a good way to find out if I’m talking to somebody who actually knows a subject. They’ll be able to catch me out on a topic, which becomes an opportunity for me to learn from them about that topic. This may not work, as many people are too polite to tell other people they’re wrong or full of crap. MIT tends to foster an adversarial conversation style, where mistakes are leaped upon, but more genteel members of society just nod politely and change the subject. So that’s a potential problem with faking it as a means for discovering expertise.

So does faking knowledge on a subject make me a charlatan know-it-all, unfit for society? Or does it make me a generalist, developing my ability to communicate between communities? What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Faking it

  1. Well, it makes you a charlatan know-it-all, but a generalist with limited knowledge in any one field who is developing his ability to communicate between communities.


    I thought the point about testing the other person’s knowledge was a good one – can they see through you, or is the superficial jargon enough to get by? The problem, as you state, is whether they’re polite and don’t call you out on it, in which case you learn nothing and your ego grows a little, or whether they do.

    I have some similar tendencies – a lot of it is that I know a little about a lot – enough to get by on a reasonably wide variety of subjects with *most* people. But I also know that I’m likely to stumble over something when in the presence of people who *do* know a lot about the subject, which is why I think I clam up in a lot of social situations until I find out enough about the people who I’m talking to to at least get some idea of their level of expertise.

    The weirdest thing to me is that though I consider myself mostly a generalist, I can go toe to toe with anyone in the world when talking about design in videogames. I don’t have any doubt about that… except that I do. For some reason, I assume that everyone can see through my experience to the gaps in knowledge that I know I have, and that that somehow devalues all the knowledge that I *do* have.

    Only after a while, once I’ve realized that even the experts in the field don’t know any more than I do, do I feel confident talking to them about it. But it’s strange, since I’m fine yammering on about any number of things I know vastly less about.

  2. Personally I don’t think faking is the right way of developing a skill set or quality or for that matter develop developing my ability to communicate.

    Faking knowledge on a subject make you a person who so long for the attention you had when you where the champion Scholastic Bowl player.

    Now all you did is find a reason to justify that faking in your case is OK because that helps you be a generalist.

  3. Your post reminds me a bit of Harry Collins’ more recent stuff on expertise — he gave this talk on “interactive expertise” (at least I think this is the term?) at Cornell a few years ago where he argued that after years of hanging out with physicists, he could fake it as a physicist pretty well in conversation even he didn’t really have a full mastery of the subject. Actually, I think he even did a little social experiment where he got a physicist to ask him and another physicist questions, and then gave other people in the field the answers to see if they could figure out who was the actual “expert”. Maybe you should try this out as a less socially risky way to test your expertise 🙂

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