The “I’m an Expert” Trap

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SquareAs my freshman year of high school neared its conclusion, my math teacher, Mr. Evers, stood at the chalkboard and drew a large square, which he said represented the entire field of mathematics. He asked us how much of that square we thought we would learn by the time we graduated from high school. After fielding a few guesses, he gave us his answer by filling in a very small corner.

That blew my mind. At the time, I was a solid math student and I wondered how there could possibly be so much more to the discipline beyond what we already had under our belts. Once I got to Tufts and decided to major in the subject, I was introduced to sections of that square I had never even heard of before: complex analysis, abstract algebra, discrete mathematics, differential equations, linear algebra, number theory, numerical analysis, etc.

By the time I finished my degree, I had stretched my mathematical abilities to their fullest extent. Subsequently, more talented classmates of mine who continued on to graduate school in the field explored areas of the square that we never touched as undergrads.

Even the boundaries of that square are expanding as the field grows. A few years ago, a publishing company contacted me and asked if they could feature me in one of their textbooks, so I reached out to a couple of my favorite math professors to let them know. In one of their replies, he included mention that his current research is focusing on how the topography of a rotating sphere, such as a planet, can be mapped based on data collected from its poles. Well, we certainly never covered that in high school.

When Mr. Evers filled in the corner of his square, I learned an important life lesson that sticks with me today and reverberates through my work as a dietitian: A little bit of knowledge can be worse than no knowledge at all if we do not understand the context and erroneously believe ourselves to be experts.

Flipping through the study guide for one of my personal training certifications, I count 15 pages on nutrition. Unfortunately, some trainers learn the material in this one chapter and incorrectly believe themselves to be nutrition experts. When I hear trainers at the gym talking with their clients about food, way more often than not the information they are offering is grossly oversimplified at best and blatantly false and/or dangerous at worst.

Reading a handful of pages on nutrition does not make one a nutrition expert, just like reading the chapter in the same study guide about interpreting electrocardiogram results does not put me on the same level as a cardiologist. Too often, the greater context goes ignored or forgotten: Guys, that one nutrition chapter is nothing more than the tiny filled-in corner of my math teacher’s square.

This is not about picking on personal trainers; all practitioners, regardless of discipline, have bounds to our professions and we are all responsible for recognizing the limitations of our expertise. One of my patients, reluctant to work with a psychotherapist, asked me, “Can’t you just handle the therapy part?” Well, no, I cannot, although I was flattered that he felt comfortable enough with me that he would ask. Even Joanne, who has a degree in psychology, recognizes and respects the vast chasm between being able to identify the need for therapy and having the expertise to provide it.

The more we continue our education, the more we realize just how much learning still remains, not just on an individual level, but on that of our field and society as a whole, too. When it comes to nutrition, realize that graduate students, professors, and other researchers are all working diligently at universities, hospitals, and research centers across the globe in search of answers to outstanding and complex questions regarding food.

Part of actually being an expert means recognizing the grays and nuances, the dearth of crisp absolutes, and that sometimes the best answer to a patient’s question is, “I don’t know, but let’s see what we can do to find out.”