Our clever friends—the ultracrepidarians

Do you have a too clever friend?

We’ve all got people in our lives who are self-appointed authorities on everything from the mating habits of penguins to the aerodynamics of paper airplanes. Many of these people came out of the woodwork recently to guide us through COVID claiming to know more about epidemiology and virology than the governments’ medical experts.

Our self-proclaimed experts often transform conversations into battlegrounds where facts are no match for their unwavering opinion. Your degree in English literature or astrophysics or long career experience working in your field have no currency compared to our friends’ superior knowledge provided by five minutes of online research using Dr Google and Wikipedia. However much information you put on the table it is refuted by flawed logic or ad hominem attacks (i.e. what makes you think YOU know what you are talking about?).

Well, these clever friends or colleagues have a name. They are “ultracrepidarians” and are defined as people who have no knowledge of a subject but who express strong opinions about it regardless.

The currency of the conversation with these people is neither fact nor knowledge but the unwavering confidence of the ultracrepidarian’s belief in their own infallible understanding of the world. It is no consolation to realise that this confidence is more likely a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, i.e. the less about a subject someone knows, the more likely they are to overestimate their ability. Or in common wisdom—a little understanding is a dangerous thing.

The word history of ultracrepidarian

Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer of the 1st century A.D. told a story about a Greek painter called Apelles of Kos who lived in the 4th century BC. Apelles would exhibit his work in the front of his shop. A shoemaker viewing his work pointed out that one figure had the wrong number of straps on his “crepida”, a kind of sandal.

Apelles accepted the criticism and made changes to his painting that day. The following day, the shoemaker, seeing that Apelles had listened to his criticism, offered further advice but this time about the shape of the leg.

Apelles was not impressed and replied to the shoemaker (as described by Pliny in Latin): “sutor, ne supra crepidam”, meaning “shoemaker, not beyond the shoe” (in common wisdom—“let the cobbler stick to his last” meaning stick to what they know, or “stick to their knitting”).

The expression was abbreviated to “supra crepidam” and then became “ultra crepidam” and with the addition of “arian” (meaning the agent of or believer in) it became “ultracrepidarian”.

A further extension of this is ultracrepidarianism—for the process of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge.

There are a few other synonyms for ultracrepidarians including everythingologist—for someone who presents themselves as an expert in all fields, despite having no credentials. We may just know them as know-it-alls.

How not to be a ultracrepidarian

We all have opinions which is a good thing for a free society. We are allowed to express our opinions freely. However, it is important to be humble in recognising the value of your own knowledge. Experience in building houses will give you insights into building roads but not into dressmaking. Being a guitarist will give you insights into music but not into managing world peace. Being an actor will give you insights into drama and literature but not into politics and sociology, and on we can go.

It is important to respect people that have expertise in a field because—unlike the ultracrepidarian— they have accumulated knowledge from a diverse variety of sources and perspectives; critically evaluated their understanding through long experience; and understood the limits of their knowledge.

If you want your opinion on a topic to have value it requires you to read widely from reliable sources; read and think critically by always questioning assumptions and evaluating biases; and to be open-minded in considering multiple perspectives. Ultimately, a truly valuable opinion requires a level of humility—an understanding that however well informed you may be, there is always more to learn.