In praise of incompetence

Incompetence is probably the first of our competencies! Our globalised and technological society generates ‘systemic incompetence.’ These days, we interact with the outside world through a wide set of technological interfaces and tools which we cannot escape and whose detailed modus operandi is largely unknown to us, such as, for example, the search engine Google and the social network Facebook.

Compounding difficulties is the fact that our competence nowadays is infinitesimal. We add up to very little without others and without the electronic extensions of ourselves. Society continues to promote the value of individual competence. However, the truth is competence is less and less individual and more and more collective. Without an adequate interaction with other disciplines and other people, our own specialty is bound to become redundant. Alone, we are powerless. Thus, all equal with respect to competence, and all equally incompetent!

Creative incompetency

But incompetence can also be creative, just as competence can be destructive.

Recent examples of scientific research demonstrate how incompetence can help sort out problems and contribute to decision making. For example, this is the case of video game players, who have collaborated with scientists to unravel the tridimensional structure of proteins. Another example is the case of consensus and citizens conferences, where people with no expertise at all—seemingly incompetent—have proved capable of providing a relevant opinion on a complex technological subject.

In reality, the notions of competence and incompetence need to be redefined.

Incompetence may become a genuine competency, be it at an individual, organisational or societal level. More precisely, ‘miscompetence,’ a subtle mix of tested abilities and recognised ignorance, today plays a central role in the processes of creation and governance.

Shortcomings of hyperspecialisation

The experience gained within large multidisciplinary projects shows that competence is today a collective dynamics. While this century has seen much substantial advancement in all the fields of scientific and technological knowledge, we have become almost blind to some global issues such as climate change and energy supply, which are fundamental and complex. This blindness—affecting particularly scientists, technicians and experts—has generated errors and illusions which may have societal consequences as for example in the case of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO); Monsanto’s top management strongly underestimated the European public’s reaction to GMO technology.

The trouble is that today’s hyperspecialisation is an obstacle preventing us seeing the global picture, since it is fragmented into parcels. What is essential then often becomes diluted in secondary considerations. However, essential issues are never fragmented and global issues are more and more binding. It could be argued that the future of life on Earth depends on the ability of mankind to sort out the global warming issue.

This leads to raise the question about the place and role of scientists in a society confronted with such major and multifaceted problems. How to comprehend and act on these problems through multidisciplinary approaches? The concept of ‘miscompetence’ plays a key role, here. Just as misunderstanding describes poor understanding, miscompetence means a lack of competence. In principle, scientists are not incompetent. What is required to address the main questions of our time are multiple and distributed competences. Miscompetence is, for each of us, altogether a reality, a weakness and a strength. Acknowledging our lack of competences will advantageously lead to the development of cooperative approaches.

Distributed competences

Our current conception of skills and competence is basically disciplinary, that is, related to a specific field of science or a technology. This must be replaced by a new governance, which takes into account the fact that, in a complex and interconnecting world, competences are distributed and decisions must involve, in one way or another, all the stakeholders concerned. The success of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in gathering all available expertise is an interesting example of this new necessary governance. It has been associating scientific and political competences in a decision-making perspective.

The relation between knowledge and competence is becoming more and tenuous and, to say the least, less obvious. Because competence is today collective, it can therefore be provided by many different people and profiles. Multidisciplinary approaches must be the rule—based on team building, employee panels etc. Organisations and society at large should encourage intellectual mobility, instead of granting seniority bonuses, and remove socio-professional barriers which fragment the community and is an obstacle to sharing ideas and experiences.

Michel Claessens

Author of many books, including his latest book in praise of incompetency, called Petit eloge de l’incompetence. Head of Communication for the ITER fusion project, St Paul-lez-Durance, France

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Willy Revel

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