Tacit Assumptions and Expert Failure: A Personal Story
In the Summer 2018 semester, I taught my first college-level course. The course was Economics for the Citizen. Economics for the Citizen is an introductory course for non-majors. My students were a mix of domestic and international students, and the international students were Chinese nationals.
I began the semester’s first lecture with an allusion to the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man, the opening story of the Biblical book of Genesis, Chapters 1-3. In that story, God creates humankind in the form of Adam and Eve. God then places them within the Garden of Eden, where they will want for nothing. The only restriction is that Adam and Eve do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve is tempted by a serpent and disobeys this restriction, and she shares the fruit with Adam. When God finds out, He kicks them both out of Eden to the barrens where they would know pain, toil, and hunger.
This reference to Eden was to frame the economic problem of scarcity. There was no economic problem in Eden, where there was no want, where anything could be had without sacrifice. But since Adam and Eve were cast out, they had to struggle and toil to live. They faced the economic problem: they had indefinite wants but only limited means. They would have to make choices and face costs.
In the lecture, I did not tell the story of Eden, and I referenced it without detail. After the class, I gave a quiz. On that quiz was a short-answer question to explain why Adam and Eve in Eden did not face the economic problem. When grading the quizzes, I noticed something peculiar: there was a stark contrast between the American students and the Chinese students: all the Chinese students got the question about Eden incorrect. In contrast, the American students all got the question right! The grade differential immediately set off a red flag in my mind: how could I explain this problem?
I would have an answer the next day. Before class, one of the Chinese students pulled me aside. She told me my allusions in class were lost on the Chinese students. Eden is a standard reference to Americans, but it does not exist in the same way in many Asian cultures. Consequently, the Chinese students had no clue what I was talking about. Once she pointed it out to me, it became apparent: my teaching style was failing the Chinese students in my class!
What was causing me to fail in my duties was a simple tacit assumption I had made; one I was not even aware I had made: Eden is a universally known story. Though a crucial assumption, it was never articulated nor even known by me to be a significant factor in my decision-making. In short, it was not a conscious choice I made, but a choice nevertheless that affected the output.
Such tacit assumptions impact our thinking on ways too innumerable (and inarticulable) to list. Often, as is the case here, we may not even know we are making them. One of the merits of the concept of “checking your privilege” is to remember that our experiences shape our tacit assumptions. Everything we do or think is shaped by many factors, many of which we do not know.
Another important takeaway from this story is that the dialogue between people drew such implicit assumptions to the fore. By “challenging” my expertise, the student forced me to articulate my point in a more informative manner. She (and the other students) became more informed once I explained my allusion (and altered my teaching style to accommodate their needs). Additionally, I became more informed of my decision-making process and the students’ needs. Overall, the information available to the participants increased, and everyone was made better off. Such knowledge generation could not have occurred if such dialogue was forbidden or discouraged.
This story is simple but points to an essential part of Information Choice Theory. Challenges to experts incentivize them to reveal more information (in theory, the equilibrium result from such challenges is full information revelation). As more information is revealed, the experts become more aware of their tacit assumptions. Likewise, the nonexperts become more aware of their tacit assumptions. These challenges can be friendly (such as the student challenging me), or they may be adversarial (such as in a common-law courtroom). Regardless, the act of challenge, the dialogue, brings out the assumptions and increases information. Information (especially tacit) revelation does not occur without these dialogues, and we are worse off, information-wise. Experts must be meaningfully challengeable.
Jon Murphy is a PhD candidate in Economics at George Mason University and Visiting Fellow at the Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society at Syracuse University.