Ultracrepidarianism: the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge.

I had never heard of this word before tonight, but I came across it while reading Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, of Freakonomics fame.

I’m not very far into the book, but like their previous books, it captured my attention after just a couple of pages. Here’s a brief blurb about the book from the Freakonomics web site:

With their trademark blend of captivating storytelling and unconventional analysis, they take us inside their thought process and teach us all to think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally—to think, that is, like a Freak. Levitt and Dubner offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems, whether your interest lies in minor lifehacks or major global reforms.

The authors believe that one of the keys to this new way of thinking is to learn to say “I don’t know”—for until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.

And that’s where they used the word ultracrepidarianism.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten much better at saying I don’t know, mainly because I realize how little I actually do know. But as a college professor, sometimes there is pressure (likely self-imposed) to act as if you know more than you do.

I’ve learned to stay within my areas of expertise (reciting the ABCs, counting by twos, writing nonsensical blog posts); doing so has led to fewer moments of embarrassment.

I still recall one embarrassing incident from more than 35 years ago. I was in my first year of an MBA program, and I was part of a team that was working on a fairly large economics project. Since I had majored in Economics as an undergrad, other members of the group (to their later dismay) relied on me for some basic background info about Economics. Somehow I got my supply and demand curves  reversed, and whatever argument I made in support of an upward sloping demand curve must have convinced my teammates enough to sign off on it and submit such analysis as part of the project. Needless to say we were humiliated in front of the class with our analysis, and for some reason I never worked with my teammates on another group project.

I’m not sure if that’s an example of ultracrepidarianism, since economics was supposed to be something I knew a little bit about. In some sense, that makes the incident seem even worse. But it probably planted the seed about being very careful about offering my opinions as fact.

My goal now is to slip the word ultracrepidarianism into a conversation, and I think there has probably never been a better time to do so.

Just give me the name of any current Presidential candidate, and I know I’ll be able to say, “That person’s guilty of ultracrepidarianism”.

(and so is every college professor I’ve ever met…)

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