Doing business development for new initiatives at Nanotronics is kind of like being an “educated layman” for a living. My blog is also a pretty good example of an “educated layman”’s thinking about a variety of issues. So I plausibly know what I’m talking about here, and may have useful advice for other people looking to succeed at being “educated laymen.”

What does being an “educated layman” mean, to me?

Basically, an “expert” or “specialist” is someone who has spent their whole life studying or working on a specific narrow topic. If it’s an academic topic, they’ll typically have a PhD in that topic.

An “educated layman” is someone who is not an expert, but who, in a discussion with experts about their field of specialization, can contribute useful ideas.

An “educated layman” will typically know less stuff than any expert does about their field of expertise, but can still contribute good ideas that no expert has thought of.

How is that possible? Usually, because the “educated layman” brings a different perspective, or a toolkit from another field, or has an unusual set of priorities that the expert community hasn’t been optimizing for.

There are a couple standard examples I’ve encountered where it’s useful to be an “educated layman.”

  1. Making decisions about whether/how to apply a new technology. If I’m investigating how XYZ tech might fit in with my own company’s work, or a customer’s work, then I don’t need to know nearly as much as the specialists who spend their lives creating XYZ tech. I just need to know inputs and outputs – how much does it cost, what does it require, what results does it produce – and just enough about how the tech works to be able to make some generalizations about that beyond the specific reported examples in the published literature.

  2. Making medical decisions as a patient. In order to decide what treatment you should get, you don’t need to know all the things a doctor needs to know. You don’t need to be able to actually perform the treatment. You don’t need to know about all the different diseases a doctor might encounter. You need to know about your disease, and how safe/effective different treatments are for that disease. You may actually have more time to read the literature on your specific disease than your doctor does, especially if it’s a rare disease. And, you may have different incentives than your doctor. The treatment that’s actually best for you may not be popular among clinicians, for reasons that don’t apply to you (like high risk of side effects in a patient population you’re not part of.) So it’s possible for an “educated layman” patient to have a good idea that an “expert” doesn’t have.

  3. Managing experts. You don’t need to know how to do their jobs in order to propose useful ideas that they haven’t thought of. You have a high-level view of what everyone is working on and what goal it’s for, and they have a tendency to get hyperfocused on the specific task at hand. You can ask a “dumb” question like “how does this task impact our overall goal?” and very quickly find out “whoops, it doesn’t help at all, maybe it’s time to quit working on this sub-project.” You can be a fresh set of eyes, and a “North Star” to keep everyone oriented towards the overall mission.

  4. Importing a highly general “toolkit” or technology to a field where it hasn’t penetrated yet. I see this very often with statistics or computer automation. A stats/ML/computers person can often very easily create a ton of value just by importing the techniques they’re familiar with to a field where nobody has heard of them. You need domain knowledge to do this effectively, but not as much domain knowledge as the experts have. Just enough to check whether the technology you introduce is actually making the field’s problems better rather than worse.

Being an “educated layman” in the sense I’m talking about presupposes that you believe there’s actual value in a field and its experts to begin with. If you think the whole business is bunk, like, say, astrology, then you’d have no reason to teach yourself enough of the technical details of astrology to converse intelligently with astrologers.

You can think a “field” or community of expertise is flawed, biased, or just missing some context that you have, and still consider it valuable enough to dialogue with and learn from. This is the context in which it can be worth “tooling up” in a field enough to function as an “educated layman.” You’ll be hoping to make a contribution as a non-expert – so, definitionally, you believe that the field is “missing” something that you can provide – but you’ll also be learning from and collaborating with experts very heavily.

Being an “educated layman” is in this way very different from the kind of anti-expert view you see in, say, Nassim Taleb’s opinions about social science. He doesn’t think there’s any real knowledge in contemporary social science, so he doesn’t bother to learn their specialized lingo. He dismisses them, and they dismiss him.

That’s fine, if you’re confident there’s nothing there. This post is for situations when you do think there’s something there – even if you’re skeptical about some parts.

I’m most confident in my ability to do the “educated layman” thing in biology and medicine, since I’ve been doing it the longest there.

Really, there’s no such thing as reaching “educated layman” status in something as broad as “biology” as a whole. What you can do is tool up to the point of being able to have discussions with experts in a super-specific question. And I’ve done it in enough specific biological or medical topics to be pretty confident in my ability to do it again on a new topic, assuming there’s the right kind and distribution of available literature.

What do I mean by that?

The ideal scientific literature on a topic, for the purposes of self-study, is:

  • Not so huge that you can’t read literally all the published studies that attempt to answer the question, after you’ve restricted attention to certain kinds of sufficiently good study designs
  • Not so tiny or low-quality that you come out of the self-study process knowing no more than you’d get from a couple of anecdotes or opinion pieces
  • “Simple” enough, or close enough to what you already understand, that you’re confident you can summarize, for each paper you read, what the experimenters or paper authors did, why they expected their methods to answer the question, what results they got, and what features of the study design and results make you more or less confident in the conclusion.

It’s harder to self-teach enough to know what’s going on, in subjects that have heavily nested prerequisites you didn’t study in school (for me, that’s chemistry and physics). I can almost always read a biology or social-science paper, if I have my trusty Google handy and a place to take notes. I can sometimes read engineering or experimental-physics papers, but not always, and I can’t read chemistry or theoretical physics papers at all. There’s also an intermediate stage of “I bet I could learn the prerequisites, but it would take a while and I haven’t gotten around to it yet”, which is roughly where I am with a lot of computational genetics.

It’s also hard to self-teach in subjects where 3D awareness of where things are is important, so learning from text or diagrams is difficult. For instance, if you’re researching “which of these surgical techniques works best for this condition?” you may run into problems noticing when two different anatomy phrases are actually referring to the same thing, if you’re just black-boxing the anatomy and don’t have a spatial model of where anything is. (Though YouTube videos demonstrating medical, laboratory, and industrial procedures are a huge help for understanding things that are hard to visualize from text.)

In my experience, more time reading stuff does matter. Both at the micro and macro scales.

On the micro scale – I am way more able to contribute in a meeting with an expert if I’ve done at least an hour of prep first than if I haven’t. The difference is striking.

On the macro scale – I get way worse feedback from knowledgable people when I propose ideas about topics I’ve spent less total time self-teaching (like economics) than topics I’ve spent more total time self-teaching (like biology.) I’m more likely to be reinventing the wheel, looking at only part of the story, or just plain stuck in economics; I’m more likely to be able to come up with something actionable and novel, or at least something that’s not obviously terrible, in biology. This despite the fact that I’ve taken almost an undergrad major’s worth of economics classes, and no biology classes since high school. I think avid reading is a bigger factor than formal classes, at least in my case – possibly simply because, over an adult lifetime, “self-study” reading can add up to more hours of focused attention than formal education.

Basically, I think, in order to be a good “educated layman”, you have to put in the time, and focus on what’s easier to do as a non-expert.

What you’re missing, as an “educated layman”, is apprenticeship with a “master.” You will not know how to actually do lab procedures, so you will not know how they tend to fail in ways that aren’t captured in the published papers. You will not necessarily be able to replicate the results in papers if the “secret sauce” is unwritten and passed from lab tech to lab tech. You will not know the field’s gossip about who is worth listening to and who isn’t.

Your strength, as an “educated layman”, is the ability to drill down and learn everything about the one question within the field that you care about, which will often be different from what most experts in the field care about. Your lack of embeddedness in the community can actually be helpful, because by aggregating everything in the one slice of data you care about, you can generate ideas that aren’t correlated with the field’s biases.

Some of these ideas will be bunk because you’re missing part of the picture; listen to those criticisms; but some will survive skeptical examination, and that’s where you add value.