Vanity, thy name is “expert”

Posted on September 29, 2008. Filed under: Everything you wanted to know about doctors, Layman's AI, Personal philosophy, Self-deception |

As my medical school years drew to a close, each of us faced the choice of residency that would determine how we spent our professional lives. A close friend and member of AOA, the medical honor society comparable to Phi Beta Kappa or Law Review, declared that he had chosen OB/GYN. He and I had shared what I felt was a miserable experience as “acting interns” on the obstetrics service our senior year, so his choice astounded me.

“Why?”

His answer was seminal: “Have you noticed the size of the textbook?” Indeed, the OB/GYN text was far smaller than that of any other subject we studied. “I think it’s possible to learn everything there is to know about OB/GYN. I can be an expert.” Perhaps he was citing the mental comfort associated with mastery of a skill, and the unlikelihood that he would find himself in a situation beyond his capabilities, akin to a world-class martial arts expert walking alone at night. I suspect the knowledge that one’s work was done as well as could be done would provide substantial comfort, especially if one were well-paid, and the importance of that work were protected and promoted by a guild system. [NOTE: in those days, there was little concept of medical malpractice, a scourge which subsequently would hit the OB/GYN specialty harder than any other.]

Yet, I think his answer (and his career choice) may have been more instinctive, and perhaps outside his conscious awareness: the possibility of being an expert may have been subsumed by the possibility of being recognized as an expert. Dr. Robin Hanson, on the Overcoming Bias blog, initiated a discussion of a similar concept, referring to “expert at” versus “expert on, in which the former could perform successfully and the latter could talk about it successfully. I’m referring to a third entity: an expert on a topic who also is an expert at that topic. He is an expert by all practical considerations, and he is well-remunerated. Is that enough? Perhaps not.

I have observed a distinct change in attitude when the expert-aspirant is exposed to his peers. In my own field, I wanted to be, planned to be, and worked to be the best in the world. In my own mind, I achieved that (male surgical sexual medicine is a very small pond for any size frog), and I was compensated financially in adequate fashion. I want to be satisfied with the knowledge that my work was of superior technical and ethical quality. But it’s a self-edited summary; often (not always) at the highest levels of anything, self-satisfaction seems overrated, and inadequate. At a conference of IPP (inflatable penile prosthesis) technical experts, early in my career, I was seated at dinner next to a surgeon who was prolific in numbers of successful operations. In fact, studying his methods had caused me to take a number of steps that benefitted both my technical skills and my practice success. Because of his influence, and my subsequent personal experience, he and I both used the same brand of IPP in our patients. Neither of us was in academics, so our “fame” came only from our patients and from the recognition of the manufacturer. He mentioned that he had performed “3- or 4-hundred” procedures that year. Unlike some areas of surgery, the number of IPP surgeons who ever perform more than 100 procedures in a year can be counted on two hands. My pride was piqued, and I replied, “I did 201, and Mr. X (the manufacturer CEO) told me that was tops in the world.” When I was just starting, this same surgeon had asked me to join his practice; after the dinner encounter, he was never friendly to me again. It was vanity versus vanity. Of note, I am very unpopular with the “experts on” in my field, those I call the “thought leaders”, none of whom are “experts at”. It’s the recognition, stupid.

Lest you think that the self-satisfied expert at/expert on doctor is immune to this vanity, give him a chance for recognition. Pharmaceutical and device manufacturers have caught on to this weakness in spades. The opportunity to be the star at doctor-to-peer lectures and presentations has changed the attitude of many a current physician, and strongly influenced his practice habits. Even when one has reached the pinnacle of both actual and recognized expertise, the vanity drive remains strong. Dr. Michael DeBakey gave the AOA visiting professor lecture during my junior year. I don’t remember much of what he said, but one quote has stayed with me: “I could make a career simply correcting the mistakes of other vascular surgeons.” Probably a true statement, especially at the time, but of what value was this knowledge to junior medical students? Could there be any doubt that recognition was the driving force?

Recently on Overcoming Bias, the smartest of the smart have shown not only are they are not immune to the vanity of the experts, they actually are as pedestrian as the rest of us when it comes to this human frailty. In the posts and discussions here, here, and here, it’s all about who is the smartest, who is the best qualified, and who is the leading expert. One would think pride in one’s intelligence is severely misplaced. As one of the main posters, Eliezer Yudkowsky, has said, “We are the cards we are dealt, and intelligence is the unfairest of all those cards.” Yet note the ego-involvement. One would think that accomplishment was a far better source of pride. And if that accomplishment has not yet occurred? Such encounters as this are the result. I choose Mr. Yudknowsky as an example only because he is a dedicated student of the human thought process, and one of two main writers on a blog dedicated to eradicating bias. If it can happen to such as him, perhaps it’s innate.

*Pro tip*:The ultimate goal is not only that I succeed, but also that you fail.

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    The director of the Sexual Medicine Center leaves penile implants behind, and launches a quest for knowledge about Artificial Intelligence, extended life, and the issues inside the health-care industry.

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