Everything is simple, until you're an expert

I recently watched a brilliant documentary about the building of London's CrossRail system. It discussed many of the challenges involved with a "mega project" - and gave a little insight into what went wrong during construction.

What struck me though, was how simple it seems to build an underground railway!

  1. Dig some tunnels
  2. Lay some tracks
  3. Done

I mean, that's all it is when you get down to it, right?

But, of course, even something as basic as digging a tunnel is hard. Sure, even the layperson can tell that you probably need some way to stop a tunnel from collapsing. But you probably need a geologist to tell you what sort of material you'll be digging through. And a health and safety expert to tell you how to keep people safe down there. And a logistics expert to tell you how you deliver all the necessary parts through a crowded city. And... and... and...

Hell, the tunnel was so long it was affected by the curvature of the Earth!

It is the same with any moderately complex project. When something goes slightly wrong, you'll always get people (like me) whinging "Why didn't they just...?"

The modern world is irreducibly complex. If you've ever read "I, Pencil", you'll know this has been the case for centuries. No one can know everything. Nor can they understand the ramifications of the choices they make - as so eloquently described in The Good Place:

As an outsider, it is probably functionally impossible to accurately criticise the way any complex system works. It's possible to criticise the outcomes. Or the impact. Or the the way it makes you feel. But I don't think non-experts can meaningfully diagnose complex, multidisciplinary, or systemic issues.

And that makes me sad sometimes.

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4 thoughts on “Everything is simple, until you're an expert”

  1. Rachel Clarke says:

    Had a conversation recently with someone about vaccine delivery process and that covid was so fast. His opinion was it was not fast enough, generally vaccine development is terrible and they have obviously never worked in a proper business environment (i think his background was IBM). I did not carry on because there was no changing his opinion that is was so very easy and the companies weren't just rrying hard enough

  2. Philip Potter says:

    I love London Reconnections for their London transport infrastructure deep dives. One thing I learned: digging a tunnel is easy, building stations is hard! The tunnels are "just" tubes, the stations have to manage passenger flow in a safe way, in normal and emergency conditions. Also crossrail stations are absolutely ginormous.

  3. Eric says:

    It's also interesting that the more you become an "expert" in a specific area, the easier it is to recognize that everyone else seems to (at best) simplify and dumb-down that topic. When I listen to a podcast with smart people (who are experts in their own field), they seem to get trivial things wrong with my field. I'm sure that I do the same anytime I try to communicate about their field.

    I hope that now that I recognize that others have difficulty with the basics (or nuance) in my areas of expertise, it moderates my confidence talking with others and limits any "why didn't they ..." moments I might otherwise have.


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