Adventures with Mr. Wizard

I generally prefer to discuss ideas, not people. Substance, not gossip. But there are exceptions to every rule and Mr. Wizard is one of them. I first met Mr. Wizard at a pool hall and it wasn’t long until he said, “I know a lot about pool.”

What a weird thing to say.

I wondered why he said it. Was he trying to establish himself as an authority? That if I had any questions I should consult him? Or was he presuming that I already knew a lot about pool, and that he did too? The choice seemed to be between boastful or insecure. Not exactly flattering options. But perhaps he was just socially awkward, and since I consider myself to be socially retarded, I ought to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I noticed that he had the same kind of cue I used to play with, but that the shaft had been changed, so I said, “What kind of shaft are you using?”

“What?” Said a confused looking Mr. Wizard.

“The shaft. On your cue. It’s not original equipment. What is it?”

I presumed that he had changed it for some specific reason, and that since he ‘knew a lot about pool,’ we could discuss it in more depth. But Mr. Wizard said “I don’t know that.”

This was not intended to be a “gotcha” question. I was not trying to be a smart-ass, but apparently the guy who knew “a lot about pool” didn’t know much about his own cue. I said, “Oh.”

Mr. Wizard added, “That’s what was on there when I bought it from some guy in Bangkok.”

It occurred to me that Mr. Wizard had gotten ripped off. That the guy in Bangkok had kept the low-deflection shaft that the cue came with standard, and sold it to Mr. Wizard with a plain piece of wood on it. But that Mr. Wizard was unaware of this. I did not say that. I just said, “Oh.”

There was an awkward silence, and then perhaps in an effort to prove his pool knowledge, Mr. Wizard said, “I’ve got a link to all of Bob Jewett’s articles.

I guessed this was supposed to impress me, and it did make an impression, just not the one that Mr. Wizard intended.

For while it is true that Bob Jewett’s articles contain a “lot” of knowledge, as chance would have it, I too have read the same articles and had been practicing some of Jewett’s drills earlier that day. And if that wasn’t coincidence enough, I also know Bob Jewett personally. He played and coached on the next table to me every weekend for about two years at Crown Billiards in San Ramon CA.

I did not say any of that to Mr. Wizard. I did not want to seem like I was bragging, or bullshitting, or trying to put Mr. Wizard down. And yet the truth seemed to leave few options. The best I could manage was, “Yeah, Bob’s written a lot of good stuff.”

The conversation didn’t go much further than that. And if that had been the end of it, the story would hardly be worth telling. But that was not the end of it. Not by a long shot.

Over the next several weeks, Mr. Wizard and I would have a number of conversations on various topics. In each case, Mr. Wizard assured me that he “knew a lot” and then proceeded to reveal – unknowingly – that he didn’t know as much as he thought he did, all while seeking to inform and correct me.

Kind of annoying.

But I did learn something from Mr. Wizard. I learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which ”Incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious, instead, the incompetent are blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

With Dunning-Kruger, low performers are unable to recognize the skill and competence levels of other people, which is part of the reason why they consistently view themselves as better, more capable, and more knowledgeable than others.

As the old saying goes, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A person might have the slimmest bit of awareness about a subject, yet thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect, believe that he or she is an expert.

Hmm. Sounds like Mr. Wizard to me.

Of course, the Dunning-Kruger effect is at epidemic levels in today’s world. In academia, the media, politics, and everywhere else. Long before Dunning and Kruger’s research, Bertrand Russell put it this way, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

But perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps Mr. Wizard really knows everything and it is I that am suffering from Dunning-Kruger? Perhaps I lack the competence to accurately evaluate my own competence? Perhaps I am hopelessly mired in my own ignorance? Oh my goodness, whatever will I do?

Not to worry. Mr. Wizard would soon return, to “help” me.

To be continued (maybe)…

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