Active Thinking Topic 24 -  The Limits of Competence - Are We Just Monkeys with Screwdrivers?

Tuesday 1 February 2022, 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm

Any replies to the organizer -

Venue: ZOOM online

Focus Questions

1. Where do you rate yourself as competent and incompetent? Do you have any plan to alter this?

2. In your own trade or profession, what percentage of peers do you rate as competent, incompetent or just getting by? What criteria, exactly, do you use to arrive at this estimate?

3. When things go wrong - personally, locally or globally - we are inclined to look for malice or conspiracy. How much of this misfortune is actually down to incompetence, and attempts to conceal incompetence? Examples?

4. It has been claimed (Harvard Business Review) that only about 10% of managers are actually effective. The rest are just spinning their wheels, trying to look useful. So what is the best solution when you inevitably find yourself at the mercy of incompetent authority figures?

5. Every 3 or 4 years in Australia we formally get a chance to vote out of office political administrations which seem to be less competent than their formal opponents. How much difference does this democratic process actually make? What if the electors themselves are incompetent to make a judgement? What alternatives can you propose?

6. If the supply of competent people in any human endeavour is always limited (for an infinity of reasons), what is the best way to ensure that the most competent are always selected and empowered? Why is this ideal so rarely met?

7. Given the way the world works, you have every chance of being trapped in a situation, or even a career, where you know your competence will always be limited (.. examples?). How can you set about doing the least damage, and retaining a bit of self respect?

8. Is he a competent surgeon who removes a kidney with exquisite skill, but does it for the wrong reason (maybe the operation was unnecessary)? This happens constantly in medicine, in auto mechanics, in administration ... etc etc. In every occupation there are procedures, then there is a storyline to justify the procedure. The storyline might be valid, or might be nonsense. Examples?

9. Compare the tolerance for incompetence in different occupations. In what jobs is incompetence obvious, and in what jobs is incompetence harder to trace? What are the consequences of hard to trace incompetence?

10. AI, computerised databases, data analysis etc can magnify human incompetence, minimize human incompetence, and also expose human incompetence. That is, they show some of the limits of human competence. Examples? Consequences?

Extra Reading

Thor May (2012) "The Contest for Competence." The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "If some people don't break the rules sometimes, then a normal society will cease to function. Breaking the wrong rules for the wrong reasons is like breaking legs though. And if everyone breaks the rules, then a society will disintegrate. A paradox? Yes. See how this cake is baked...".

Thor May (2003) "The Case for Favoritism". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "...yes, there are men and women who have obtained their jobs unfairly. They are legion, and the burden of their incompetence has sunk countless companies and economies. Yet amongst their number are individuals of great ability, who lacking beauty, mediocrity or some other qualification of 'meritorious selection' by average fools, would never have had the chance to exercise their gifts without the unfair intervention of some wiser sponsor.."]

Thor May (1987) "Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine." The Passionate Skeptic website @ 

Thor May (2015) "The Unexpected Power of Stupidity". The Passionate Skeptic website @ 

Thor May (2014) 'So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university?" The Passionate Skeptic website @ 

Thor May (September 21, 2008) " The End of Capitalism is Announced". Thor's New China Diary @  [Quote: "So the crookedest brains in Moscow, Beijing and Washington didn’t want to make a system that worked for you or me. Has anyone managed to do it? Well, yes, more or less, for brief moments in history. Virtue, like vice, is a temporary affair with unpredictable outcomes.... "]

Darius Foroux (May 29, 2018) "Price’s Law: Why Only A Few People Generate Half Of The Results". Blog @



The Limits of Competence - Are We Just Monkeys with Screwdrivers? (c) Thor May 2022

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