The Lone Confused Expert

Wednesday 8 July 2015This is nearly eight years old. Be careful.

If you participate in mailing lists or IRC long enough, you will encounter a type of person I call The Lone Confused Expert. These are people who know a lot, but have gotten something wrong along the way. They have a fundamental misconception somewhere that is weaving through their conclusions.

Others will try to correct their wrong worldview, but because the Lone Confused Expert is convinced of their own intelligence, they view these conversations as further evidence that they know a great deal and that everyone around them is wrong, and doesn’t understand.

I’m fascinated by the Lone Confused Expert. I want to understand the one wrong turn they took. One of the things I like about teaching is seeing people’s different views (some right, some wrong) on the topics we’re discussing. Understanding how others grasp a concept teaches me something about the concept, and about the people.

But the LCE is just a tantalizing mystery, because we never get to uncover their fundamental understandings. The discussions just turn into giant food-fights over their incorrect conclusions.

As an example, recently in the #python IRC channel, someone learning Python said (paraphrased),

Python calls old datatypes new names to make them sound like new things. A dict is just a rebranded list.

I’d like to know what this person thought a dict was, and how they missed its essential nature, which is nothing like what other people call lists. Perhaps they were thinking of Lisp’s association lists? That seems unlikely because they were also very dismissive of languages other than C/C++.

Typical of The Lone Confused Expert, the discussion balloons as more people see the odd misconceptions being defended as a higher truth. The more people flow in to try to correct The Expert, the more they stick to their guns and mock the sheeple that simply believe what they’ve been told rather than attaining their rarer understanding.

Two more examples, from the Python-List mailing list:

At a certain level, these statements are simply wrong. But I think somewhere deep in The Lone Confused Expert’s mind, there’s a kernel of truth that’s been misapplied, some principle that’s been extended beyond its utility, to produce these ideas. I want to understand that process. I want to see where they stepped off the path.

There’s just no way to get at it, because the LCE won’t examine and discuss their own beliefs. Challenges are viewed as attacks on their intelligence, which they hold in higher esteem than their knowledge.

In idle moments, these statements come back to me, and I try to puzzle through what the thought process could be. How can someone know what a punched card is, but also think that characters on it cannot be tokenized?

I wonder if a face-to-face discussion would work better. People can be surprisingly different in person than they are online. It’s easy to feel attacked if you have a dozen people talking to you at once. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet one of these Lone Confused Experts in real life. Maybe I don’t want to?


I really enjoyed this, thanks. I've never read the Python ML before but there are some beauties in there. Via one of yours, I came across "Who uses "object abstraction" in C? No one. That's why C++ was invented."

The LCE is a huge problem on Debian-User mailing lists. I think a big part of it is ego.
A dict is a list? That sounds more like a brilliant subtle troll. Was there much melting down?
I think the LCE is usually parroting something they read or heard, and thought they understood but probably didn't. They claim the statement as their own, rather than acknowledging the source, because they want to appear knowledgeable. They can't argue their position effectively because they don't actually understand it, but neither can they back down! First because it would defeat the point of appearing knowledgeable, and second because it requires reconciling the arguments with their original misunderstanding, which they're unable to do.
I think face-to-face discussions – especially 1:1 – almost always work better, as long as people are able to keep their cool. Thoughtful writing can really illuminate a subject and really transform/persuade a patient reader. But quick interactions online are a different matter. By projecting an "online persona" onto an IRC stage (and you can't help doing this, at least a little), you both make yourself vulnerable and you box yourself into the character you appear to have become.

Face-to-face, it's easier to disagree deeply but still respect the other person. Online, it's far too easy to caricature someone and leave it at that, and fear of being dismissed as an idiot drives people to strange behaviors. (Or, if they're anonymous, that gives them a way of not caring what others think.)

…just some musings, there. I don't know what's going on with the LCEs, either. :)

P.S. It was a little bit tempting to respond with something like: "'Lone Confused Expert' is just a new name for 'Socratic interlocutor'. It's exactly the same thing, and I don't see how your post offers anything new."
I've heard (but not observed for myself) that there's a phenomenon of engineers (of the mechanical/electrical sort, not software) becoming physics cranks, perhaps because they took a lie-to-children in their textbooks as perfect truth and then built a world around it.

This sounds like the same thing you're describing.
You're right, people don't like being challenged. People do love to feel superior to others though, and they love to impart knowledge. If you haven't already, you could try an approach along the lines of:

"I don't understand, I must be missing something important that's obvious to you. Could you please explain in more detail. Thank you."

It might work.
I guess LCE are those who are not ready to empty their cups. not ready to accept the changes...
An LCE just needs to know the bitter truth once and for all. If only a non LCE chooses to become constructively bitter just once, then this race of LCEs can be eradicated.

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